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The New York Sun


What's the Point of Books?

May 24, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

On Sunday, Rachel Carson would have been a hundred years old. This got me thinking about a couple of books just out, written with the same indignant passion that drove Carson.

It can be agreed that Carson's "Silent Spring," which sparked environmentalism, has had a great impact on the world. What kind of impact, though, can a book have like Vincent Bugliosi's "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy"?

Mr. Bugliosi spent 22 years building what will likely be the most definitive case possible that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. The case required 1600 pages - forget doorstop; his new one could be practically a whole door.

Because a book of that length will be read cover to cover almost exclusively by people utterly obsessed with the assassination, in its wake, the suspicion among much of the general public that Kennedy's murder was driven by a conspiracy will stay put.

Oliver Stone's film, "JFK" will always be a more vivid and memorable statement than any book will be. Add a human predilection for grand-scale narrative and justified vilification of the Cold War CIA, and the idea that there must have been something more to it than one lone nut job, will live on.

Meanwhile, can we really imagine that even the diehard conspiracy buffs will read Mr. Bugliosi's book and then just pack up their bags and go home? Unlikely. For one, the book requires close engagement with sustained argumentation, and that is not natural to human cognition. It requires training that not all people get, and also jibes with some individuals" psychologies more than others".

This is in contrast to the way we talk, for example, in little packets of seven or eight words at a time, strung together like beads on a string. Carefully plotted exposition cast in long sentences is an artifice, a stunt, allowed by writing that can be found in Mr. Bugliosi's book. Almost no one casually talks that way, and as such, we do not naturally think that way. Word packets are great for scoring points, building crescendos - but not for getting across the long arc of a dense argument.

As Mr. Bugliosi has noted elsewhere, it's hard to get juries to keep in mind that a case is not like a chain, where if one link breaks all is lost, but like a rope, where even if a strand or two snap, the rope remains intact. JFK conspiracy buffs labor under this assumption, as Amazon book reviews of Mr. Bugliosi's book are already showing. For these fanatics, pursuing this conspiracy is like a religion. Their belief will not die.

And on religion, I am also bemused by Christopher Hitchens's "God Is Not Great." It is currently near the top of the Times' best seller list, but in the end, what could this and the books of its ilk written lately by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett change?

Mr. Hitchens's book is, unsurprisingly, great writing. But the number of people who will contact Mr. Hitchens thanking him for writing about the logical error in the religious faith they were raised in and trying to convince them to become atheists will be very, very small. People do not give up their religious faith on the basis of suasion. The faith is, by definition, beyond the reach of logic.

So for all of its entertainment value, how could the book affect the world beyond that? There have long been prominent religious skeptics. In the Gilded Age, orator Robert Ingersoll was titillating audiences declaring, "toilers are paid with the lash, babes are sold, the innocent stand on scaffolds, and the heroic perish in flames" and "yet we are told that it is our duty to love this God." Yet, these days, religion is on the rise in America. Ingersoll changed nothing.

From what I see, the effects of books like "God Is Not Great" will be to make nonbelievers feel more confident in expressing their views. But they will not convert believers, which means that these anti-God books will serve mainly to elevate the rancor in our public discussion.

These books will certainly stand as evidence for human beings' capacity for reason. All this reminds me of an academic book I wrote long ago on how creole languages develop.

It remains the book I am proudest of, but people studying creoles had different interests than mine, such that virtually none were inclined to engage 250 pages of longlined arguments on this topic. Exactly six people read it. Two of them were reviewers. The book changed nothing.

Life goes on, but I gain faint comfort from the fact that in a hundred years some futuristic fellow in a unitard may read my book closely and be convinced of its argument. I suspect Messrs. Bugliosi and Hitchens feel the same way, in which case, I currently view both with a combination of awe and consolation.

Original Source:



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