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Books, Newspapers & Politics

September, 2006
By John Huckans

The upbeat news from Olympia hints at increased public interest in book fairs—or at least more willingness to spend serious money on rare books.

Preliminary reports from ABA offices in Sackville House (London) indicate that sales figures for this year’s June book fair were 48% higher than the 2005 final tally. (£3,189,000 versus £2,155,000). Even though overall attendance was down by about a hundred, there were more visitors on opening day compared to last year. As in many other things, it seems money talks and everyone else buys on the Internet.

There are other changes in the trade as well. By now some of you may know that after nearly 35 years Barry Shaw has decided to pull the plug on Bookdealer, the U.K.’s longest running “trade weekly for books wanted and for sale.” Bookdealer joins The Clique, AB Bookman’s Weekly, Biblio, Australian Book Collector, and some lesser-known publications, in having decided that the more numerous but increasingly marginalized members of the trade aren’t motivated enough or can’t afford to support specialized magazines in their own field of interest.

In Paul Minet’s column this month he concludes “the lower to medium end of the book market here is practically in free fall and the demise of Bookdealer is partly a result of that…” The advice “adapt, change or perish” especially applies to book-related periodicals.

The phenomenon is not limited to special focus publications such as the one you are now reading—the editorial page editor for a large metropolitan daily newspaper told me, not long ago, that not only his newspaper but papers around the country are seeing a steady decline in subscribers and news-stand sales. Because of changes in lifestyle, fewer people have the time or desire to plough through every information-packed issue of the Los Angeles Times or The Boston Globe—and as the unread papers pile up, readers finally give up and cancel their subscriptions. Sadly, many Sunday editions have come to rely on advertising inserts and discount coupons to fuel their readership. The situation has gotten to the point that the Chandler family, largest shareholder in the Tribune media group, is causing a bit of a row by pushing for a spin-off of the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers from the more profitable broadcast and online segment of the business.

For entirely different reasons, I now subscribe to a foreign newspaper (in paper form) and read online papers from around the world. Except for the L.A. Times and The Christian Science Monitor, I find many American newspapers have what I consider selective coverage of and a morally unacceptable editorial stance on events in the Middle East. Tip O’Neill is often quoted as having said, “all politics is local”—in the world our children will inherit, they’ll learn, at some point, that important politics is international.

By now you may be tired of the daily spectacle (by way of television or the Internet) of dead women and children and your tax dollars at work in southern Lebanon, with one side enjoying the advantage of a US-enforced regional monopoly of nuclear and conventional weapons of mass destruction—the very best in high tech weaponry (including M-26 cluster bombs) that American taxpayers’ money will buy. It seems that Mr. Bush and his neo-con handlers are working very hard to make the world safe for hypocrisy. Correction—the US maintains an even-handed Middle East policy and is an honest broker for peace in the region. Could that be why this country continues to gain popular support and respect from throughout the world?

Seriously, folks, the complexities of international relations and the resulting division in external loyalties are such that the idea of general popular acceptance of the prevailing bi-partisan foreign policy is little more than a myth. A myth in the sense that it cannot be assumed that everyone agrees with the administration (largely influenced by Congress and lobbyists) in its carrying out of what many of us believe is a decades-long, misguided agenda that will, morally and pragmatically, further isolate this country in the years to come.

We haven’t progressed much from the time when Stephen Crane and Frederick Remington were sent to Cuba to report on the struggle of the local population (terrorists?) who were opposed to continued occupation and control by Spain. Soon after arriving, Remington wrote to his boss, William Randolph Hearst—“There is no war. Request to be recalled.” Hearst’s famous reply— “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war” is sometimes quoted to illustrate the power of the daily press at the time. Nowadays the job is done by powerful lobbies and special interest groups that call themselves public affairs committees or political action committees. All of them have websites, blogs, and e-mail alerts that collectively have the ability to reach, influence and mobilize more people than newspapers do.

Whether newspapers, the Internet or talk radio (individually or in combination) provide the best tools for manipulating public opinion, the result is the same—special interest groups have the very best Congress money can buy. Somewhat dated, but more relevant now than ever, P. J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores (New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991) provides a generous dollop of humor that helps make the medicine go down. For a more sober and serious analysis of the problem Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby, published in the March 23rd London Review of Books, is a must read.

Type “Mearsheimer and Walt” in your Google search bar and you’ll end up with at least 301,000 hits, the first one being the London Review of Books website and the article itself. John Mearsheimer is the Wendell Harrison Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and author of The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (NY, Norton, 2001). Stephen Walt is a Professor of International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and author of Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (NY, Norton, 2005). The 27-page article, which created a predictable firestorm of controversy, was originally commissioned by Atlantic Monthly who later decided not to run it. In June of this year the New York Review of Books published Michael Massing’s The Storm Over the Israel Lobby, a balanced critique of the Mearsheimer and Walt piece.

Also, Ira Glunts, an antiquarian bookseller who with his wife and partner Linda Ford runs Half Moon Books in Madison, New York, has written an insightful commentary that was published in Common Dreams, (available on—line at: www.commondreams.org/views06/0410-34.htm). Ira has lived in Israel on and off since 1972 and was a volunteer in the IDF in 1992. Mr. Glunts’ article effectively invalidates David Gergen’s criticism of the Mearsheimer and Walt essay.

“I fear for the book,” said Gary Austin during one of the many quiet moments at the recent Cooperstown Antiquarian Book Fair. He was expressing a concern shared by many booksellers about a public that no longer seems interested in the great middle range of the antiquarian book market—not the hyper—collectible, super-expensive trophy books that few people read, but the important, perhaps recently out-of-print books that not only entertain but contribute to our understanding of the real world.

In an intellectual climate where too many people seem to spend too much time following the sports news and watching “American Idol,” read little, have no personal libraries to speak of, and rely on Fox News or talk radio for their opinions, I really fear for our country’s future.

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