Bob Woodward and Thomas Friedman don't have quite the same ring as Woodward and Bernstein, but this September the two journalists have been linked. Both their new books came out on the same day and both were greeted by media coverage that was able to break through the wall-to-wall election news. Also, both journalists seem to maintain a dose of objectivity and neutrality in their books that is highly unusual in today's polarized book market, which routinely features partisan warriors like Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Michael Moore and Bill O'Reilly.
Woodward's The War Within chronicles the Bush administration's "secret" history over the last two years--most notably the discussions around the military surge in Iraq. It is Woodward's fourth book on Bush and his cronies and it follows the damning State of Denial. Plan of Attack, published in 2004, is a more mixed view of the administration, while the sycophantic Bush at War, detailing the first few months after the 9/11 attacks, was the low-point of Woodward's career in retrospect.
When I saw the subtitle of the new Woodward book (A Secret White House History 2006-2008), I wasn't sure which was the more absurd idea--that someone in the Bush administration would still tell Woodward a secret after the publication of A State of Denial, or the hubris of Woodward himself in believing he's actually being told valuable secrets.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded, meanwhile, is Thomas Friedman's take on how global warming and America's wavering sense of national purpose are inextricably connected. Friedman's previous book (the blockbuster The World is Flat) has become the primer for many people on globalization. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, has a reputation as a somewhat fair-minded centrist. If he were a politician, he'd be the world's most unrepentant flip-flopper. He has championed every side of the Iraq War over the last five years. He was for it before he was against it three times over.
I was thrilled last Monday when these two books came out. September is usually a slow month at the store, compared to the tourist-filled days of July and August. Two huge sellers just might provide the spark we needed to extend the busy summer season a few more weeks, I hoped. We cleared off the cart directly across from the registers of the eight different books that were occupying it, and filled it up with The War Within and Hot, Flat, and Crowded. We flung the doors opened and waited for the frenzied masses to snatch up copies of the new titles.
Well, we waited and waited through the morning. I was particularly hopeful for the Woodward book because he had appeared on 60 Minutes the previous evening. Nary a customer came in inquiring about his book, but we did sell a couple of Friedman's in that first hour before I headed down to shipping and receiving to help out.
While I was down in S & R, I heard an interview of Friedman conducted by Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio's Fresh Air. It was fascinating to listen to, although very familiar if you've heard Al Gore speak about public policy in the last few years. Friedman made a powerful case for the necessity of government leadership to free us from our oil dependency. He made a passionate argument that changing light bulbs and driving hybrid cars wasn't enough to lead us out of the morass that we are in.
He railed against John McCain for missing over a dozen votes on a critical bill to extend tax credits for alternative energy--the bill failed to pass by one vote (59-40) while McCain sat in his office and refused to cast a vote--and pointed out the absurdity of the delegates at the Republican National Convention chanting "Drill it! Drill it!" To Friedman, that's the worst thing that we could do in this situation. We don't have nearly enough oil to drill ourselves out of the problem. He talked about how happy the Saudis, the Venezuelans, and the Russians must have been to hear that chant instead of a focused attempt to develop alternative energy.
When Terry Gross asked him about this fall's election, that's when Friedman went from passionate crusader to shameful waffler. Barack Obama is saying all the right things and has great information on his website, according to Friedman, but The New York Times' resident mind reader doesn't think that it's really an important issue for Obama. Friedman's not ready to commit politically, even though the whole premise of his book is that bold, immediate, political action is needed. Friedman wants someone willing to take on the challenge of the leading the world to energy independence, but he's unwilling to rule out a man who couldn't even be bothered to vote on the issue. Friedman wants to leave the door open for McCain and Sarah Palin.
Still, at least people were talking about Friedman's book. A friend of mine sent me the link to the Terry Gross interview over the weekend and many other people, including customers, seemed generally interested in his idea of connecting our dependency on oil, the increasing globalization of the world, and the United States' propensity for getting into foreign policy disasters. He's offering people something new to think about.
The Woodward book, on the other hand, seems to elicit no interest from people in Boulder. Perhaps people don't want to hear how the brave and courageous President decided to implement a surge against the advice of many of his colleagues. Perhaps we are reminded of just how badly Woodward misjudged W in Bush at War and don't want to see him getting snowed once again. Perhaps we just don't want to look backwards at Bush anymore and want to move into the future.
In Boulder, the response to the two books is clear. We have sold 43 copies of the Friedman book, and just four of Woodward's. In fact, if Woodward's book doesn't turn around it will be one of the worst single buys in my 11 years as a front-list buyer. I brought in 100 copies based on the 134 hardback copies of State of Denial that we sold. I've never had to return 90% of a buy that big before.
Nationwide, it's not so cut and dry. I noticed this morning that Hot, Flat, and Crowded was the number 2 book on Amazon.com, while The War Within was number 9. Maybe there are just that many Republicans scanning Woodward's book to see if he published their dirty little secrets. But if that's the case, our sales won't pick up here at the Boulder Book Store.
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