Pale Wire (Popscene)

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Simply, the best (Or at least I guess)

Tonight I finished leafing through Royce Flippin's collection of The Best American Political Writing of 2005.

Who's Royce Flippin, you ask. I wish I knew. Don't expect his book to tell you. I just read the whole thing and I have no idea, though I'm pretty sure I know the dozen or so magazines he subscribes to.

By now I'm sure you're familiar with the formula. Publisher hires some marginally famous writerly person to compile the year's best magazine writing on a particular marketable subject. Marginally famous person, who, at least by my lights, has typically edged a little further along the margin toward genuine fame than Mr. Flippin, cobbles together an up-and-down smattering of material from all the usual sources, making sure to include plenty of Big Names—all to justify the grandiose title plastered on the front. A quick Amazon search turns up this year's class:

The title is a bit of misnomer. The book was released on Oct. 10. What you're really getting is Flippin's version of the Best American Political Writing of late 2004 and the first half of 2005.

Following the formula, Flippin plays it safe, stuffing his book with articles from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Times Sunday Magazine and the other heavies in Washington reporting. He shows a favoritism for writers who aim for that middle-range focus somewhere between the ground-level reporting that fills in the public record and the long-after scholarly endeavors that eventually try to make sense of it all. Reporters are said to write the first draft of history. Flippin seems to favor those who try to write the second. What you'll find are plenty of "thinkpieces" that try to capture trends, challenge common assumptions, predict the future, or analyze patterns of behavior.

Don't expect any surprises. You're getting Bush-Kerry, Red State/Blue State, the political battle over Social Security, and what to do about this whole Iraq thing. The best stuff—James Fallows' well-sourced cost-benefit analysis of the buildup to the war, Andrew Ferguson's illuminating story on the honest graft of Jack Abramoff's Washington, Wil Hylton's profile of Alan Greenspan—presents the synthesis of reems of press clips with original reporting in a clear, conversational voice. But, particularly when it comes to the high-attitude stuff about "King Karl," THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM, and "What if Bush is right?", they are, sadly, often as shallow and overamplified as most of our politicians.