Kennedy, Beck, Malkin: Mixed News on a Cultural Signpost

Our top-selling books reflect the vicious and the heartwarming in our society.

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By Jamie Stiehm, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

True Compass, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy's riveting memoir, recently topped the New York Times Best Sellers list, I reminded myself on the ferry from his hometown, Hyannis Port, to Nantucket in the midst of an October nor'easter.

So something seemed right with the world in Massachusetts, though the coast wasn't clear enough to see the horizon. John F. Kennedy liked to say you could see Ireland across the ocean, but not that day.

Yes, I scan the Best Sellers seriously as cultural signposts—but the news ain't all good. "The List" is just as divided in a crazy-quilt pattern, just as vicious and heartwarming (in patches and squares) as we the American people.

As the boat rode the waves and the wind in a tempest, the vessel seemed so much like our country at this critical hour. We passengers were citizens, voters, and job seekers—uncertain about the rocky crossing, and a bit seasick.

My goal was to gather field notes on Lucretia Mott, a Quaker leading light in the anti-slavery and women's rights movements before the Civil War. Raised on that island in the early years of the Republic, Mott felt we were unfinished pilgrims, still on a journey together—what a bracing concept. 

The books that overtook Kennedy's (now at No. 3) are: Have a Little Faith by Mitch Albom and Arguing With Idiots, written and edited by Fox News host Glenn Beck and other co-authors.

First on the list, the Albom book offers religious comfort from a suburban rabbi blended with bromides from a pastor in our most troubled metropolis, Detroit, where the auto industry is on its knees. Arguing with Idiots is a series of sketches and knocks on government. Beck, the tribal force behind this tome, is the thinking man's George W. Bush.

Also on the list is more Malcolm Gladwell fare in Outliers, in which the author takes something simple like fame and making it into a complicated game that comes down to cosmic chance. Then there's the tale of a "friendly fire" failure the Army concealed for months and years, the death of soldier and former NFL star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. I haven't read it, but the title, Where Men Win Glory, by Jon Krakauer, seems to belie the sad futility of Tillman's fate.

To cheer up, try American on Purpose by late-night talk show host Craig Ferguson, whose zany love of his adopted country is somehow informed and innocent at the same time. The red, white, and blue Scottish kilt he wears on the cover is a bit much—but it's refreshing to hear of our country's fine points from someone who's not running for office.

Does it say something good about us that Half the Sky, uncovering sexual oppression around the globe, made the list? I think so. The husband-wife team of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wu-Dunn wrote this book, in 13th place, beating out a book that makes one blush. That would be Culture of Corruption by one Michelle Malkin.

Malkin's broadside against President Obama's administration, completed when it was only months old, is liberally sprinkled with words like "sordid" and "seamy." Of Michelle Obama, she sarcastically suggests the Chicago-born first lady regarded herself as "bitterly oppressed." She's almost as acid as Ann Coulter, which she may take as a compliment.

So there you have the voices and pens of your democracy, suggesting we are still seeking consolation, inspiration, and partisanship, among other things. The List tells us the times are trying—and we're far from finished with this crossing. 

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