Read 'til the Cows Come Home

As 2001 crawled to an end and we were up to our eyeballs in Enron, Argentina and Afghanistan, an article that slipped into the business section of The New York Times managed to catch our eye. It was an article about layoffs at a major publishing house, still another omen of the murky economic times ahead.

“Although the initial layoffs represent a tiny portion of the payroll, they have sent tremors through the company and the book industry,” reported the Times. “Retrenchment at a major publisher inevitably stirs authors’ and agents’ fear that the company will reduce the number of books it publishes, or that editorial and marketing resources will be stretched thin.” Scary news indeed, particularly for an industry—like so many these days—that operates on a winner-take-all basis. It’s Harry Potter or Bust. Makes you wonder just what sort of books might fall through the cracks under heightened scrutiny from the number crunchers.

Here at the Observer we take books very seriously. This special, 40-page edition is one of two expanded Books issues (summer and winter) that we publish each year. To kick off 2002, we’ve put together an issue that is chock full of good writing on history and politics—which seems just about right, considering the year we have just finished and the political machinations already underway in this election year.

Among the highlights are longtime contributor Bob Sherrill’s delightful dissection of David Halberstam’s War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals. Michael Miller weighs in on Political Fictions, Joan Didion’s recent collection of essays on domestic politics. Cathy Corman, a Texan in exile currently teaching American history at Harvard, looks at A River Running West, Donald Worster’s highly acclaimed biography of John Wesley Powell, the nineteenth century explorer who put the Colorado River and Grand Canyon on the map and whose vision of “the West” is as timely as it ever was.

With a collection of essays on the Second Amendment as a take-off point, University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson examines the evolution of legal thought provoked by that great, all-time symbol of the West—the gun. (Even more timely given the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in U.S. v. Emerson last fall, the most wide-ranging ruling on the Second Amendment in recent times. The case, which began with an ugly divorce in San Angelo, is expected to be heard before the Supreme Court.) Beatrice Edwards, a Houston native now living in Washington, has contributed “Free Radicals,” an excerpt from a novel-in-progress set in Nicaragua in 1978.

That’s just a start. But it seems fitting, when talking about an issue filled with history and politics, to give the last word to the poets, who almost always put things in perspective. And that’s exactly what Paul Christensen does in a review of several recent books of poetry.

“If America keeps lopping off the extremes, the highs and the lows of cultural life, and encourages only a middle ground to stuff us, mesmerize us,” Christensen warns, “we’ll go on living without knowing how ideas form, where they come from…We’ll just get the finished, tamed, domesticated, market-tested middling product of imagination and go on believing everything is pat, regulated, predictable.”

That’s what’s really scary about those omens on the business pages. —BB

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Published at 12:00 am CST