Saturday, September 15, 2012

Blogs about Books are Elitist: Reading in an Election Year

It is election season and I live in a 'battleground' state. Thus, I suffer hourly calls from pollsters, campaign workers, and research groups. It is enough to make me want to hurl my phone into the mighty Colorado River (note: it is mandatory that any reference to a major river in the United States be modified by 'mighty.' See: everything ever written about Huckleberry Finn. Ever.) It is in the spirit of healthy disengagement from presidential politics that I offer you my favorite fictional and non-fictional works on campaigns, candidates and our great democracy. Turn off your phones and get readin' (political bonus points for use of 'man of the people' pronunciation).

1. The Last Hurrah, Edwin O'Connor
The title refers to the final campaign of Mayor Frank Skeffington (read: James Michael Curley) in an unnamed city (read: Boston). Skeffington is the old-school, political machine candidate. He's fiercely 'local' in his politics and deeply corrupt. He is also funny, smart and charismatic. His opponent is a good looking, polite, entirely mediocre young man. The title rather eliminates the possibility of a surprise ending, and Skeffington's inevitable defeat ought to be seen as a triumph over cronyism and ward politics. But O'Connor allows for a much more nuanced understanding of democratic political life.

2. All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren
Perhaps you are the last political idealist in the United States. Perhaps you believe that public servants are just that. Don't read All the King's Men. Warren's tour de force is a fictional account of the infamous career of Huey Long, longtime governor of Louisiana. Long genuinely believed in universal health care, education, and employment. He used blackmail, extortion and bribery in his efforts to achieve these goals. 
All the King's Men's is frighteningly precise and extraordinarily inventive. This, for instance, is a description of a football game: "The band blaring, the roaring of the seas, the screams like agony, the silence, the one woman-scream, silver and soprano spangling the silence like the cry of a lost soul." 

3.  The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, Robert Caro
I grew up in New York. I consider myself a fairly well-informed human being. I had no freakin' idea who Robert Moses was or how utterly he transformed New York over his nearly fifty year career.

An unelected official, Moses exercised so much power that he almost single-handedly pushed through development projects that displaced hundreds of thousands of residents of New York City. Arguably, he preferred automobiles to people, contributed to the ruin of the South Bronx and Coney Island, caused the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, and precipitated the decline of public transport through disinvestment and neglect. He also made the city viable for the 21st century by building an infrastructure that most people wanted and that has endured. What have you been up to recently?

Robert Moses' story is fascinating and Caro's work is insanely well-researched. The downside of Caro's commitment to thoroughness is, well, his thoroughness. There are points in this thousand plus page biography when you are going to want to cry 'Uncle!' But, these moments are few and far between because Caro is an elegant writer and his subject demands the word count.


  1. That's because you need to come upstate (the real upstate) where we have the Robert Moses Highway. It's kind of like the Buffalo version of the bridge to nowhere... Except I use it to get to an outlet mall.

    1. I sincerely hope the outlet mall sells Robert Moses swag: t-shirts, LiveMoses bracelets, tote bags.

  2. The ONLY Robert Moses the Beckley clan know is the Phillistine who drove the Dodgers all the way west until they hit the ocean.
    When the Old Fashions flowed he was not well spoken of.

    1. Was anyone well spoken of when the Old Fashioneds flowed? Other than the Queen and Sir Ian Botham, I mean.