America This is Quite Serious: The Sunday Book Review

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Our goal with this series is to find books, articles and more that clarify the prevailing forces of this election season, or at least mollify how it feels to bear witness to them. This is roughly the same thing that the New York Times Book Review is doing this Sunday. With a cover illustration of burning letters asking “WHY POPULISM NOW?” the issue offers up a long list of books hoping to ensure that all this fire sheds a little bit of light.


The central essay asks “What Do This Season’s Political Books Tell Us About the Election?” While the author,  former Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, admits that election year books “always seem to arrive too late or too soon,” he believes, “They are useful nonetheless” as documents that “help measure the distance we’ve traveled and illuminate the route we’ve been inching or barreling along.” Tanenhaus sticks to this thesis, looking back to look forward, and traveling some distance. Measuring this year’s discourse against that of 1936, another populist-charged year, he examines books on the attempted resurrection of the GOP; the changing demographics of the US (“quite possibly the most illuminating text for this election year”); the rise of (mostly left-wing) populism; a defense of a universal basic income; one book on how corporations are controlling everything; another book on how citizen activists are changing everything; and finally, the customary takedown of Washington elites.

And that’s just one essay. The rest of the Review samples from a broad range of 2016 topics: A book called Ratf**ked, about gerrymandering. The history of angry white people from dual perspectives of economic class and race. Speaking of angry white people, a treatise from the intellectual (read: non-Trump) wing of the GOP on building a functioning society of free individuals. A historical examination that hopes to understand the current and future state of the war on terror. A defense of finance as the key to building a civilization. Looks back at the Supreme Court’s conservative Burger era and a moment in the Civil Rights movement. For the campus set, there’s even a discussion on whether “art for art’s sake” is a luxury of privilege. Trigger warning if that kind of thing irritates or disinterests you. Perhaps most important is the review of a controversial novel about a Muslim living in America.

Another reflection of the 2016 election in this week’s Review is that conservatives aren’t likely to enjoy it very much. There is a passing respect for philosophies of individualism and small government, but anything that might spark an initial interest in conservative readers tends toward critiques of the corrosive sentiments of the GOP’s current standard-bearer, or the futility of efforts to move past their current predicament without acknowledging the rot in their own foundation.

Still, America, this is quite serious, and this week’s New York Times Book Review, and many of the books in it, it seems, are worth a read.

Read more in our election year series “America This is Quite Serious.”

-Michael Moats





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