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The Library of Contemporary Thought hopes to spark a series of national conversations about provocative ideas. Is that a hopeless cause, or what?

By Scott Stossel

AUGUST 10, 1998: 

America used to have a common cultural currency. Before cable television, before niche marketing, before multiculturalism, before the proliferation of a million sundry Web sites, our lingua franca (at least the high middlebrow version of it) was derived from a finite set of origins: the three television networks; the leading big-city newspapers; and long articles in publications such as Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, and the New Yorker.

Not anymore. Scandals, sporting events, and the last episode of Seinfeld are still conversational capital around the office water cooler, but beyond those, there's no longer the kind of social glue that, say, Murray Kempton or Johnny Carson used to provide. Too many specialized media compete for our attention -- no single article, personality, or television program can exert the kind of hold that Walter Cronkite or even Lucille Ball once did. (Seinfeld may have generated high ratings and ad revenues, but its relative share of American viewers pales beside what I Love Lucy once commanded.)

Whether this is good or bad is open to debate. There's less that binds us together as an audience. But we also have more cultural options, a wider array of choices that, in their specialization and diversity, are less exclusionary than what used to be available. Still, on balance it's hard not to regret the absence of television programs like Roots or magazine articles -- like Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic," about Huey Newton and the Black Panthers in Leonard Bernstein's apartment, or Norman Mailer's "Superman Comes to the Supermarket," about John F. Kennedy -- that, like them or not, you had to talk about, if only because everybody else was. Today, it seems, all that fills that role is Monica Lewinsky.

Peter Gethers, a Random House vice president and editor-at-large, isn't happy about that. "In the heyday of the New Yorker and Esquire, you would read articles that told you everything you needed to know about a political candidate or a business. Everyone would have read it and everyone would be talking about it. But that doesn't seem to exist anymore," Gethers says. "I wanted but couldn't find books from writers I trusted telling me what to think about."

So, in what may turn out to be a noble exercise in windmill-tilting, Gethers has launched the Library of Contemporary Thought -- a series of short paperbacks, priced at $8.95 each, to be published and distributed by Ballantine Books at a rate of one per month, drawing on what Gethers calls "a long legacy of the angry pamphlet" in American and European publishing history. The original American example of this genre, Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776), is in relative terms the best-selling publication of all time, as well as arguably the most influential -- after all, it helped foment the American Revolution. Gethers, of course, is not out to start a revolution. But he certainly wouldn't mind capturing some of the spunk and spirit of Paine's screed, or its literary and political influence on society.

The idea behind the series, then, is to give prominent writers the opportunity to "mouth off about the things they care about," filling the void left when the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and other magazines went the (largely Tina Brown-led) way of celebrity journalism. The Library of Contemporary Thought will, Gethers hopes, spark conversations at the office or at dinner parties, the sorts of conversations that the writings of Tom Wolfe and Susan Sontag used to inspire.

This is an appealing notion, but one that will have difficulty finding purchase in a culture where everything is demographically targeted and market-segmented down to almost the individual person. Gethers, in effect, wants to prescribe subjects of discussion for the entire literate (or at least the entire literary) populace, creating an Oprah-style book club for the nonfiction-reading elite. But he's competing with, for example, the Internet, where pretty much the whole point is that each member of the online population can pick his own subject for discussion, no matter how esoteric or specialized. What's more, existing publications such as the New Yorker, Harper's, and the Atlantic Monthly, while perhaps increasingly marginal in the general scheme of American culture, continue to be widely read among the middle-to-highbrow set. It would be interesting if the Library of Contemporary Thought could somehow supersede all this to become essential reading; were it to happen, America would be made over into a kind of giant salon. But it is not likely.

It's not that the books in the series -- there are six to date -- lack merit. It's just that so far, they haven't had much impact on dinner-party debate. (Granted, it's only been about four months since the first was released. But have you talked about John Feinstein's book on Tiger Woods around the water cooler? Have you even heard of the Library of Contemporary Thought? I didn't think so.) The problem -- one of them, anyway -- is that for these books to become part of the national conversation, they need to get reviewed. But because they come out as paperbacks with fewer than a hundred pages (they're the general size and shape of a chapter book for an eight-year-old), book-review editors don't consider them worthy of serious attention, despite the fact that the authors (such as Pete Hamill, Carl Hiaasen, and Seymour Hersh) are well known.

Gethers concedes that so far sales have been mixed (read: disappointing), but he is quick to point out that Hiaasen's book, on the depredations of the Walt Disney Corporation, reached number one on some Los Angeles bestseller lists. He also says that he considers the launch of this series to be a two-year project. Ballantine has already decided to publish one book -- Boomernomics, by two Wall Street Journal reporters -- in hardcover, with the idea of garnering more review attention; the series may switch entirely to a hardcover format in the future.

Even after just half a dozen books, the series has already covered an appealingly wide range of subjects. The first book out, in February, was Vincent Bugliosi's No Island of Sanity: Paula Jones v. Bill Clinton: The Supreme Court on Trial. Unfortunately, this is one of the two weakest books in the series; it was rushed into print early as Little Rock judge Susan Webber Wright prepared to rule on whether Jones's sexual harassment claim had merit. Much of Bugliosi's book is given over to bizarre ranting: he inveighs against, among other things, women who don't want to stay home to care for their children (which is their "natural" calling), the overvaluation of playoffs in professional sports, and voicemail. Whether the editing was too hurried to curb this ranting or the publisher consciously decided to give the author free rein, the effect is downright strange -- which is too bad, because it distracts from the indignant but sound argument Bugliosi makes about the Supreme Court's flawed decision to allow Paula Jones to pursue her civil suit while Bill Clinton remains in office.

Pete Hamill's News Is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century, on the other hand, is the best book in the series. Filled with passion and venom, Hamill describes the growing shame among newspapermen at what's become of their profession: newspapers, which used to be like small communities, have become mere purveyors of gossip and sleaze. If his rhetoric is overblown at times, his anger at corporate meddling in the editorial workings of newspapers (which are getting "dumber," he says) is palpable. Hamill's is a familiar lament these days, but he issues it with conviction and authority born of years of experience.

Even more provocative, in some ways, is John Feinstein's The First Coming: Tiger Woods: Master or Martyr? Subverting the conventional image of Woods as a genial savior of golf and a symbol of multicultural harmony, Feinstein asks, "Is there anyone out there willing to tell Tiger Woods he's not the Messiah?" So far, it appears, the answer is no; according to Feinstein, Tiger is a spoiled, petulant kid who uses his money and his 100-watt smile to wield power arrogantly over others. Without giving short shrift to Tiger the Golfing Phenom or Tiger the Valuable Racial Symbol, Feinstein worries that if IMG -- International Management Group, the sports agency that emerges as the real villain in this book -- continues to exploit and coddle Tiger the Marketing Icon, then Tiger the Asshole will prevail. Perhaps unfairly, the author withholds until page 50 the fact that his personal run-ins with Team Tiger have stoked his own animus against young Woods.

Carl Hiaasen, the popular Miami journalist and novelist, uncorks his bile here, too. In Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World, he takes on the Walt Disney Corporation and the autonomous fiefdom it has set up in central Florida, where -- with the state's blessings -- it enjoys the privileges of both a publicly subsidized municipality and a private corporation, while suffering the liabilities of neither. Hiaasen deplores the banal wholesomeness that Mickey and the gang impose on all they touch. He tells a priceless story about a Disney press weekend where the surprise guest was the reporter Nicholas Daniloff, who had been released only days earlier from a Soviet prison. As a gaunt, haggard Daniloff limps on-stage, Mickey Mouse looms in the background, hoping to hug the newly released hostage in front of the press photographers. Daniloff feints and dodges, and poor Mickey is left hugging air.

The distinguished investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, sullied by his obsessive foray into The Dark Side of Camelot, resurfaces here with Against All Enemies: Gulf War Syndrome: The War Between America's Ailing Veterans and Their Government. This is vintage Hersh: exhaustive reporting (he constantly alludes to his "scores of interviews") and the imputations of cover-ups we've come to expect from the reporter who brought the My Lai massacre to light. Against All Enemies explores why thousands of Gulf War veterans with painful and debilitating physical symptoms were told they were merely victims of stress and were prescribed counseling or Prozac.

Hersh's book is fascinating because it's hard to know how to take it; as in a Pynchon novel, you don't know whom or what to believe. Gulf War Syndrome is either a paranoid delusion (on Hersh's part), a case of mass hysteria (among veterans), or a massive cover-up (by the Pentagon). In the end, there's a fourth potential explanation: Keystone Kops-level ineptitude. United Nations reports since the war have revealed that Iraq had a far greater chemical and biological weapons capacity than was previously thought, and it may well be that in destroying weapons depots after the war, American soldiers were exposed to toxic biological or radioactive agents. In fact, Saddam Hussein apparently had 25 anthrax-filled bombs ready to deploy, which would have been launched had US troops invaded Baghdad. Ironically, and horribly, it was the US Commerce Department that had authorized the sales of the ingredients and delivery systems for these biological weapons.

Finally, there is the most esoteric book of the lot, Edwin Schlossberg's Interactive Excellence: Defining and Developing Standards for the Twenty-First Century. This is a three-page essay stretched into a 98-page book, the thesis of which is that when defining standards for a work of art, a performance, or a piece of technology, the creator must take his potential audience into account.

"Who is the audience?" Schlossberg asks over and over again. That's a relevant question to ask of the Library of Contemporary Thought. The answer is not clear. When I first heard of the series, I imagined that it would feature cultural commentary by writers like Henry Louis Gates, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag. I hoped for longish New York Review of Books-type essays exploring, well, contemporary thought and culture -- in short, the kind of book whose audience might read the Routledge Press's less academic offerings just for fun. But this is more populist stuff, as befits a project in the spirit of Tom Paine.

While the series is off to an uneven start at best, future titles look promising. For example, political journalist (and Primary Colors author) Joe Klein is planning to write a history of alienation in America, and brat-pack novelist Donna Tartt is working on a book about the meaning of modern art. It will be interesting to see whether sales pick up over time. In the meantime, any effort -- however quixotic -- to regenerate the literate audience for ideas should be roundly applauded.

Scott Stossel is the executive editor of the American Prospect.

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