how to get politically savvy in a few easy steps

Today’s podcast, which actually came out last night, is a July 4th Address that’s hopefully still pertinent as your holiday weekend extends into its third day. 

For the past few months I’ve been reading about politics and American history for the first time in my life, biographies too, and these are exactly the sorts of books that I always avoided because I thought they’d be too intimidating, that I wouldn’t know the characters, wouldn’t be familiar with the events. 

What I’ve learned is that, if a non-fiction book crosses your radar, it’s probably targeted toward a large audience. Expert-level book don’t sell very well. The audience is small to begin with, and you can’t be sure you’ll get them all. 

In other words, most nonfiction books are written with the intention of INTRODUCING YOU to the topic at hand, and if it’s got positive blurbs from news outlets (not so much other writers, who might be colleagues blurbing the book as a favor) then you can rest assured that, even if it’s not a GREAT book, it’s almost certainly readable. And, if it’s not the final word on the topic, it’ll at least give you a stronger grasp of the topic so that you can move on to a slightly more challenging title on the same topic. 

Man Reading the Newspaper, by Albert Anker

Again, I’m fairly new to reading newspapers and engaging with politics, but last night I reached the 225-page point in Robert Caro’s 1,000-page Master of the Senate, the third volume in his Lyndon Johnson biography, and while there are passages here and there where I still get lost, and maybe two or three sentences on each page that I outright would not have understood if I’d started this book a year ago, it’s remarkable to see how accessible it is, how it’s ultimately about lonely old men who cloak themselves in the arcana of senate discourse and rule-making, but how I would have had such trouble deciphering it had I not spent a few months casually dipping a toe into political news and reading some other, simpler books on the matter.

The episode is about how it’s fairly easy to become well-studied in these topics if you just give it a little time. I even suggest an exercise for getting yourself completely caught up with the news cycle with just ten minutes of reading, every day, for a week.

What’s lacking from the episode are some recommendations. 

  1. Joe Biden by Evan Osnos–I don’t think this book is even 200 pages, and it covers the expanse of Biden’s career, analyzing his approach to the election, and his goals as president. But since Biden’s been a senator, a vice-president,, and now president, it gives you a scattered idea of what those roles entail, the starts and stops of their power. Also Biden is a meme generator, a walking gaff–less so today than ten years ago, but it means that the book follows a colorful, somewhat aloof, likeable character (telling an audience of voters, while campaigning with Barack Obama, “I’ve known seven presidents. Three of them intimately”).
  2. The Gatekeepers by Chris Whipple–This book is less about politics than about the people who wear themselves out as a president’s Chief of Staff. I’m obsessed with portraits of endurance, people who weather long stretches of grueling work, like marathoners and professional bodybuilders and powerlifters (I recorded a podcast about this topic a year ago: it’s a strange-sounding contention, I know, but I think these extreme athletes are basically monks; waking up three times a night to eat an egg, religious in their routines–I think their lives are fascinating to dissect, especially when you peer behind the curtain at what motivates them, which is usually some simple but powerful insecurity blended with vanity). Well, Chiefs of Staff manifest a portrait of that same rigor. 20-hour days, sometimes seven days a week. Matter of fact, few Chiefs last the duration of a president’s term. Like burning a candle at both ends, every president is resigned to the understanding that they won’t have their Chief of Staff for long. While looking at these heroically hard-working people, getting the chisme about the political and personal obstacles they’ve gotta traverse (everybody tiptoeing, for instance, around Nancy Reagan’s insistence that Ronald’s astrology chart be consulted before major decisions), the reader picks up, almost by osmosis, an intuitive understanding of how these political waters chop and plop and sway. 
  3. Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman–If you’re interested in books in general, or in writing, then this is a WONDERFUL place to start–because yes it’s about politicians, and it’s about their books (which might or might not interest you), but mostly it’s about how reading influences a culture, how it influences a career, how an author’s books, over the course of their lifetime, reflect their personal evolution (or devolution). Fehrman takes us chronologically through the list of US presidents who’ve toiled over particularly ambitious books and, in the process, gives us a loose history of the United States presidency and, even more pointedly by the halfway point of the book, a history of the American publishing industry. The explosion of magazines at the start of the 20th century, the significance of the Sears-Roebuck Catalog, book-of-the-month club subscriptions, paperback versus hardback, the inflation of book deals and the price-manipulations of chain bookstores. It looks like a presidential history but, by the end, you’ve learned so much, in quick accessible prose, about such a spectrum of topics you almost won’t know where to shelve it.

5 comments

  • *pulls up chair and sits down*

    You’re newly interested in history books, you say? I have a few more to recommend.

    * The entire MEMORY OF FIRE trilogy by Eduardo Galeano (Book 1 is “Genesis”, Book 2 is “Faces and Masks”, book 3 is “Century Of The Wind”). Galeano was a writer from Uruguay, and the MEMORY OF FIRE series was his effort to tell the history of both the Americas, North AND South, as a series of two- or three-paragraph vignettes, starting with pre-Columbian creation myths and going up to 1984 (the year he was writing). I got assigned the first book in a college class and it completely blew my mind – the writing itself is a magic realism style throughout, and he covers a CRAPTON of stuff, from mundane daily life in various cities to political events to pop culture. Like, flip open one book and you have a vignette from a silver mine in Peru followed by a vignette from the Battle at Wounded Knee to a couple paragraphs about Mark Twain…. It emphasized just how RANDOM and CHAOTIC history is, and how the most unlikely things can affect the course of the story.

    * As an official New York City Democrat who verges towards bleeding-heart-liberal status (let’s put it this way – I have an NPR tote bag to which I have permanently affixed an Obama presidential campaign button because that’s how stereotypical I am), I would be remiss in not at least mentioning Howard Zinn’s PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. It focuses on some of the more unsavory moments from America’s history; moments of exploitation, disenfranchisement, and imperialism. Needless to say, this is the kind of thing which can attract some unwanted attention in today’s divisive climate, so…maybe put a book cover on it or something?

    * And then there is THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES by Larry Gonick. Now, hear me out – yes, this is a graphic novel, and yes, “the cartoon history” makes it sound like it’s a fluff thing. But Larry Gonick KNOWS HIS STUFF. This is one of many “cartoon guides” he has written on topics from the realms of science and history; his masterwork is a five volume “History of the Universe”, which starts with the Big Bang and ends sometime in 2004. It is EXHAUSTIVELY researched, a hoot and a half to read, and covers parts of world history which rarely get covered in mainstream scholarship (when’s the last time you read about medieval Middle Eastern tax regulation or about trade between the Roman Empire and the Mongols?). His CARTOON HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES only covers up to 9/11, I believe, but is a similar deep dive.

    * Finally, there are two similar books I often recommend to people that take similar approaches – they are both collections of excerpts from high school history textbooks, and tell the story of American history that way. But – the first one, “History Lessons”, uses excerpts from high school textbooks from OTHER COUNTRIES. So, like, you’ll get the Spanish textbook’s perspective on Columbus’ voyage, and then the British textbook’s perspective on the Revolutionary War, the French textbook’s perspective on the Louisiana purchase, etc. The second one by the same editor, HISTORY IN THE MAKING, uses American history textbooks – but from a bunch of different years. He picks a handful of different events from American history and then looks at how different textbooks throughout time have covered those events. So you see how textbooks in 1812 covered Valley Forge, then you see how textbooks from 1885 did, then like 1914, then 1940, then 1990….and you see how the story told and how our perspective on our own history has changed and evolved over time.

    I grant that for me, “how we tell the story” is as much part of the story as the story itself; it can be extremely illuminating.

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    • Holy shit, this is thorough–and I think I’ll absolutely tackle the CARTOON HISTORY, which sounds brilliant, aaaand, since I’m still a bit insecure about how well I’ll grasp some of this stuff, it seems like it’d be the most accessible of the bunch. But those last two, from your fourth point, sound fascinating–plus!, since they’re excerpts from textbooks that I’m guessing would be used to teach the uninitiated about these things, it’d fit my level of expertise.

      The New Yorker part aside, I’m inclined to think that you and I have similar politics. In fact, I think the movie project we’re undertaking is reflective of a certain political sensibility; the perpetual student, wanting to hear and see the perspectives and ideas of different cultures and generations, then engage with them. That’s pretty lib.

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      • Heads up that the last couple volumes of Gonick’s series change the name to “Cartoon History of the Modern World” for reasons I still am not clear on. But it’s the same series. I got introduced to it by a guy I once knew who was also a major history buff – he said that he had been reading the series as it was coming out, and at one point noticed something Gonick had gotten wrong about Socrates and wrote to him to point it out. And Gonick wrote back and said “oh crap, you’re right” – and all the subsequent editions of the series got corrected. Gonick really cares about being accurate.

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      • Oh, and the textbook ones are fascinating – largely because in each one, there is a passage that has been so COMPLETELY BATCRAP CRAZY that I have read it to friends. In the “international textbooks” one, it’s the North Korean take on the Korean war; and in the other one, one thing they address is a Mexican/American war from the 1800s, and the excerpt about it from the 1908 textbook writes about it like it is an event of massive cosmic import and destiny. (It’s also HELLA racist.)

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      • Oooh, it’s a morbid curiosity but yeah I do kinda love to read the bonkers politics inherent in educational and ad copy of the early 20th century. Also, speaking of the Korean War, I’m reading the 3rd volume of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, MASTER OF THE SENATE, whose events are concurrent with that war. Have you read Caro? Do you like him?

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