I seldom read the New York Times Sunday Book Review section these days. I find the selection of books to be reviewed odd (to be kind), and the choice of reviewers somewhere between obscure and obtuse (ditto). But I have to confess that I usually flip through the section while working myself through Sunday’s lox and bagels, and I confess to reading the occasional review.
Alas, this week I stumbled on David Frum’s review of Laura Kalman’s new history of American right-wing politics in the late 1970s and made the mistake of reading it. I gather from the editorial note on Frum that he has written a book on the 1970s, but his “review” of Kalman (a friend and fellow legal historian, I confess) is silly and vicious.
Frum begins by saying that “as a work of history . . . there is nothing seriously wrong” with Kalman’s account: “The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.”
It was not clear to me where Frum was headed at this point, but then he tips his hand: “What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet?” I guess this means that fact-based narrative is outdated, since we can find the fact by Googling specific events. The example Frum gives is “Proposition 13″: “I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.”
So I Googled “Proposition 13″. There are 8,650,000 results, but of course the first one is the Wikipedia article. I clicked on that link and found a 14-page article written in the usual, stultifying Wikipedia prose. I couldn’t help noticing that the article was prefaced with a Wikipedia alert: “The neutrality of this article is disputed. Please see the discussion on the talk page. Please do not remove this message until the dispute is resolved. (January 2009).” I then went to the “talk page,” where I found 16 pages of discussion of various aspects of Proposition 13. I haven’t tried to analyze these 30 pages, but I doubt that they amount to the sort of analysis that Kalman provides.
The only example Frum gives of Kalman’s interpretation of American politics is a reference to her quotation of a characteristically flip statement about the period by Tom Wolfe. I don’t know why Kalman bothered to quote Wolfe, but the quotation hardly goes to the substance of her historical point of view. The issue is not, as Frum asks, whether Wolfe was right—it is whether Kalman is right. And since Frum makes no attempt to tell us what Kalman says, we cannot make a judgment for ourselves. His conclusion is that Kalman neglects to tell us about the “subtle, far-reaching and perverse effects” of historical events in the 1970s. That is a serious and damaging charge, but it is not substantiated in his review. Interpretation is the core of history, and it is not credible to me that as distinguished and experienced an historical writer as Kalman has reverted to the style of the Venerable Bede.
I have ordered Kalman’s book since my local bookshop did not stock it, but I’ll be surprised and disappointed if it does not tell me more than Google, Wikipedia, and David Frum.