David Frum is a talented writer who has produced good books before and presumably will do so again. I don’t think much of this current book, but out of respect for Frum, let’s treat it as a specimen of a general problem in non-fiction book writing rather than a particular lapse on his part.

The problem I’m thinking of is the prevalence of the “op-ed book.” These are books that exist principally as vehicles for introducing a specific point into current political discussion, rather than as works designed actually to be read. The publisher of such a book hopes that attention to its argument will persuade lots of people to buy it. The author hopes that, by presenting his ideas in book form instead of merely in an article, he will gain leverage for his argument. This is usually a reasonable expectation. When the book comes out, the author puts out a round of op-ed pieces explaining his point; the book reviewing apparatus further examines, defends, or criticizes the idea; and the syndicated columnists take it from there. (“In his provocative new book Saints in the Sand, Joe Blow argues that Mormons now constitute an American majority. But in fact the most interesting religious trend in this campaign year is…”) It is easy to think of countless such “op-ed” books published in the last decade—on political trends, male-female relations, racial issues, you name it. One handy indicator is William Safire’s annual “which books will make news?” quiz in his New York Times column, which touts a handful of upcoming books with one-sentence summaries of their arguments.

The most important trait of the op-ed book is that the heart of the normal book “experience”—namely, someone voluntarily spending hours reading what the author has created—is at best incidental to the op-ed book’s success. The point is not that, in modern America, few people take the time to read whole books. I am regularly impressed on train or (especially) airline trips to see more people reading books than looking at magazines or newspapers. Rather it is that books designed to be read—short ones like business how-to books, fat ones like the typical biography or Tom Wolfe novel–must offer the reader some payoff for the hours invested. That is, there must be some difference between knowing about the book, and having absorbed what’s on the pages yourself The payoff is most often that timeless standby: narrative (novels, mysteries, romance). It can be the enjoyment of a particular writer’s tone or sensibility (the inexplicable-to-me success of the Peter Mayle Provence books, the joyous tone of Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker and other tales). It can be the detailed recreation of past worlds (Stephen Ambrose’s or David McCullough’s histories, thick biographies like Lindbergh). It can be the presentation of a complicated argument, whose ramifications require sustained attention from the reader. (Mickey Kaus’ End of Equality, or Robert Wright’s sociobiology books. Agree with it or disagree, Michael Lind’s recent book in defense of the Vietnam war was worth reading, rather than reading about, for this same reason.) It can be the presentation of new information, in a form whose depth and detail have an effect no op-ed piece can approach. (Nicholas Lemann on the testing system, Taylor Branch on the civil-rights era, to choose two examples by Washington Monthly alumni) It can be very specific practical information on love, diets, golf.

Obviously this list could go on at length. The crucial point is that people read books, as opposed to reading about them, for the same reason they go to movies rather than just reading reviews. The direct experience of the work is different from knowing its distilled argument, and the difference is worth the hours of your time it requires.

That’s what’s missing from the op-ed book: a reason to spend time with the work itself, once you know, via reviewers and columnists, the main point it’s trying to make. This lack, in turn, often arises from the way the book is put together. Very often these books reflect the following creative sequence: author has a “high concept” idea, either as a contrarian twist on the conventional wisdom or to fit some think-tank or political-party agenda. (The authors of op-ed books are frequently based at think tanks. David Frum wrote this book while at the Manhattan Institute) Author sells the idea to a publishing house, on basis of a high-concept outline, in hopes that controversy about the book will make it a hot seller; author hires a research assistant to do Web and Nexis searches for citations bolstering the point, and maybe does some set-piece interviews or field trips to settings likely to support the thesis; book comes out; debate begins; author hopes the book sells; people see allusions to the book, classify it as something they agree or disagree with, join arguments about it… but never hear their friends say, “Hey, you’ve got to read this book.”

This brings us back to David Frum’s How We Got Here, which unfortunately illustrates most of the traits of the op-ed book pathology. It exists to present an argument that is concise enough, and cleverly contrarian enough, to be picked up in subsequent op-ed
columns. Here it is: It wasn’t the 1960s that messed up America, Frum says. It was the 1970s! The book expands this point with chapter-by-chapter surveys of the natural subject areas—which are also the most predictable subject areas, if you’ve read any neo-conservative literature in the last 15 years. Instability of marriage, mistrust of government and other institutional authority, eroded patriotism, disdain for the military, “counter-culture” domination of the media. Frum’s evidence for these trends is drawn almost totally from old newspaper and newsmagazine clippings, from movies and novels of the 1970s, from political speeches, and from other already on-the-record documents. If Frum interviewed even one person while putting together this book, I missed any indication of it. Frum concludes with a chapter on interpreting the 1960s and 1970s, which is the best part of the book and to which we’ll return.

So what’s wrong with this approach? The “research” method typical of the op-ed book is the key to everything else. Everyone brings preconceptions to the search for data, but in the op-ed book you start with the premise and then scan the clips and search the Web to
find supporting material. Good books don’t always require original reporting—some tour-de-force essays let us see the familiar in a new way. But the danger of this op-ed approach is that it virtually eliminates the chance that the author will be surprised, stimulated, or provoked into refining his premise by the sort of bumps you always encounter when interviewing people and observing the real world. The result of the op-ed process has the strengths and weaknesses of the typical high-school debate brief. You know which side of the argument you’re supposed to take, and you riffle through the reams of available material for the items that support your case.

Frum’s book reveals its origins in many ways. Every conceivable cliché about the 1970s is revived here. The chapter about the environment begins with, yes, the snail darter. As soon as Frum starts talking about the jogging fad, you know that he will build to the heavily-handedly “ironic” fact that Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, died in his running shoes of a heart attack.

The book is not totally devoid of surprise. In a few places so vivid they practically jump out from the surrounding drear, Frum offers facts or comparisons that dramatize how quickly the assumptions of American life can change. For example: In 1971, when Bryn Mawr College surveyed its five most recent graduating classes, its alumnae reported the births of a total of 70 children. Five years later, when it conducted a similar survey of recent classes, the alumnae reported a total of three new babies. Another illustration, showing how far medical science moved in the 20th century: In 1924, Calvin Coolidge’s teen-aged son neglected to put on socks with his tennis shoes, when he went out for a match on the White House court. He developed a blister, which became infected—and in that pre antibiotic era, he died within a few days.

But the general effect is extreme familiarity, which reduces the incentive for anyone except a reviewer to finish the book, and which reinforces the impression that Frum started with conclusions and then went looking for evidence. The book is remarkable, and remarkably different from Frum’s previous work, in its gross overstatements. For instance:

“Modern America is prepared to tolerate vast inequalities of wealth. What it will not tolerate is any claim of inequality of achievement.” Huh? What about the current lionization of tech geniuses and billionaires, or Time‘s pick of Albert Einstein as Person of the Century? The context of Frum’s statement is saying that some cultures are more achieving than others, and people are uncomfortable saying so. That’s a fairer point, but his “what it will not tolerate” sentence is typical in its sweeping oversimplification. Or:

“Compare a year’s worth of New York magazines from 1975 and 1995. The 1975 volume contains 209 photographs and drawings of scantily clad or naked or provocatively posed women; 1995 contains fewer than 30.” Huh?? New York magazine may indeed have changed in a way that suits Frum’s theory that a new wave of Puritanism is sweeping America. But how about everything else on the newsstand? Maxim and Men’s Health for the gents, Cosmo and Glamour for the ladies; three issues out of four, their covers trumpet the secrets of better orgasms. Or:

“The sudden and total disappearance of the ideal of bridal virginity has to be reckoned one of the more astonishing psychological developments in recent American history.” Total? An “ideal” suggests something aspired to in theory but not necessarily achieved in reality, and the briefest look at world literature suggests that, in most cultures, bridal virginity has long played precisely this role. But try the proposition that the ideal has “totally” disappeared on, say, the bride’s father at a Cuban-American or Greek-American wedding. Or:

Frum presents as self-evidently ridiculous Jimmy Carter’s statement, from a Cinco de Mayo speech in 1979, that he believed in “making sure that all people within our borders, no matter how they may have gotten here, are treated with dignity and justice. I am committed to protecting the basic human rights of every person in this country, whatever their legal status.” I share Frum’s belief that the term “undocumented worker” is a preposterous euphemism for “illegal immigrant.” But what, exactly, is wrong with Carter’s comment—apart from the fact that Carter, not Jeane Kirkpatrick, said it? Should these people lose their “basic human rights” and get indignity and injustice?

As these quotes suggest, there is a polemical tone to the book—and, oddly, one that undercuts its stated main point. The book is distinguished from other neoconservative tracts in concentrating on the 1970s rather than the 1960s, but in fact most of the “1970s” trends Frum discusses are spillovers from the preceding, oft-debated decade. In the concluding chapter, which in context is a startling reminder of how good and subtle a writer Frum can be, he says that there have been two warring myths about recent history: a “parents’ myth,” in which the Eisenhower era was an idyllic reward for a country that
survived the Depression and beat the Nazis; and a “children’s myth,” in which the 1950s were a dead, stultifying era from which America was released by the glories of the 1960s. “The parents’ myth is much more appealing than the other,” Frum says. “But a better myth is a myth all the same!’ He goes on to describe how abnormal the 1950s were in the long view of American history, since the vividly-recalled, immediately-recent collective efforts of the New Deal and war had made people both far more collectively-minded and more trusting of government than they had been historically. This aberrational moment of trust in government was then overturned, Frum says, by three great convulsions of the “seventies”: Vietnam, desegregation, and inflation. All three, obviously, were linear extensions of what happened in the 1960s—as Frum would admit in a moment if the high concept that this was not a standard anti-Sixties book didn’t require him to pretend otherwise.

The last chapter would have been a first-rate article on its own, freed of the make-weight necessary to bulk it out as a book. People wouldn’t have just been debating its point. They would been saying said, “You’ve got to read Frum’s new piece.”

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.