By Steve Donoghue
In my reading life, I’ve lost count of how many times some book has prompted me to say “Oh come ON” out loud. Whole generations of beagles have been surprised out of sound sleep by such outbursts on my part over the decades, and the outbursts haven’t all come about for the reason you might think.
The natural reason that might come to mind is quality: I’ll be reading some book and find myself marooned in a vast desert of crappy, tired prose, and the irritation increases in direct proportion to how much the author has been paid to foist it on the public. All mainstream general-interest writing is in significant proportion a performance, whether its writers realize that fact or not, and since most performances of any kind are more or less full-fledged disasters, a failed performance between two covers will often elicit an “Oh come ON” from the long-suffering reader – at least from this one long-suffering reader.
But there’s another reason, one that might not immediately come to mind for most readers who are rightly concentrating on thin characters, contrived plots, and bone-headed narrative twists. Because in addition to all mainstream general-interest writing being a performance, most of it is also advocacy. In addition to trying (and almost always failing) to perform well, book after book is also trying to lay out a case and defend it in the open court of public opinion. And as anyone who’s ever retained council (or watched “Law & Order” reruns) will know, not all advocates are made equal.
This advocacy has always been a foundational element in writing, and it runs through virtually all the books you could mention. St. Augustine’s “City of God” is at least as concerned with convincing its readers as converting them, for instance, and what could be closer to the essence of Charles Darwin’s 1859 thunderbolt “The Origin of Species” than advocacy? The book lays out a stunning case and urges its readers as persuasively as any well-practiced courtroom lawyer.
I’m totally open to most of these courtroom cases – that’s the key to open-minded reading, after all. And it’s a lucky thing I’m open to it, because books are very much still laying out their cases, season after season, well or poorly, on every conceivable subject.
Maybe the most headline-grabbing of them all has been “Spare,” the scandal-mongering memoir ghost-written for England’s Prince Harry. The book is pitched as an open-hearted memoir of painful honesty, but it’s very much a work of advocacy: Prince Harry earnestly wants his readers to BELIEVE his endless stories of self-pity and self-justification. He wants you to believe that despite being a multimillionaire and a literal prince of the blood, he’s the survivor of endless betrayals, a hapless but plucky survivor. He lays out just such an absurd case in “Spare,” and this particular jury member was completely unconvinced.
A very similar example this season was “Paris,” the memoir ghost-written for Paris Hilton, the famously blond hotel heiress and TV star. In “Paris” she continues the elaborate PR campaign of the last decade, all designed to convince the viewer (and the reader, in this case) that she’s a sharp, savvy businesswoman, an agile entrepreneur and innovator – the exact opposite, in other words, of both her own public persona and literally every single impression the instincts of any human on Earth would would give them. And again, “Paris” completely fails to convince the jury.
“Spare” and “Paris” were fairly easy cases, when it comes to books putting their cases before the court. Believing that Prince Harry is an abused victim or Paris Hilton a secret genius is a heavier burden than any mere book could possibly bear, after all. Likewise “The Shotgun Conservationist” by Brant MacDuff, in which he argues that the best way to help all the world’s nonhuman animals is to tramp out into their habitats and blow their heads off. This is an old and utterly bankrupt gimmick that hunters have been trotting out to juries for well over a century, and only a human, so to speak, could possibly believe it.
But in this season there’s a more complicated case before the court: “Planta Sapiens” by Paco Calvo and Natalie Lawrence. This book’s subtitle is “The New Science of Plant Intelligence,” and that’s exactly the case the book lays out: that plants, despite lacking nerves or brains, have a kind of intelligence, maybe even a kind of awareness. The book goes through dozens of examples from the latest research on the subject, and amazingly, the case feels solid – disturbingly solid. If even half of what this book alleges is actually true, every vegetarian on the planet is going to have to do a great amount of thinking and re-thinking.
It’s like this every book-season, on every subject conceivable. And truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way; it keeps my reading perennially fresh in both its frustrations and its payoffs. The case for the prosecution might seem completely ironclad, but this particular juror is always willing to be convinced. Sasquatches in Oregon? Megalodons in the Mariana Trench? A benevolent King Henry VIII? Make your case. The court is in session.