Putting on the Show: Eight Rules for Book Talks

The cover for The Babe Ruth Deception, which will release on September 27.

The cover for “The Babe Ruth Deception,” which will release on September 27.

One of the surprising parts of writing books, for me, has been the amount of performance involved — I mean performance:  standing up and putting on a show.

My experience is, of course, framed by the kind of writer I’ve become.  I’m “midlist,” which is a term that describes all the writers who fall between those who sell gazillions of books and those who can’t get their books published.  Publishers expect midlist writers to go out and hustle the books.

Making President Clinton’s Reading List

Clinton and MadisonIt’s not the best photo of me that’s ever been taken, but there are definite virtues to this one, particularly President Clinton’s savvy placement of the copy of Madison’s Gift that I presented to him.

Our conversation?  I said that I imagined that he had not found time to read Lynne Cheney’s biography of Madison.  He smiled broadly and said, “I did not.”  I presented Madison’s Gift as a superior alternative.

Triumph of the Book!


The recent press accounts have been heartening to devotees of the book — which had been disdained as the “printed book” or “hard-copy book,” or even the “dead tree book.”  It turns out that lots of readers prefer reading old-fashioned books to new-fangled e-readers.

That’s what college students say.  They want to read a “real” book, not more content on a screen.

That’s what sales numbers say, with e-book sales flattening and even dropping off while printed books are doing all right.

Several studies have found that comprehension and retention of information are superior when reading books as opposed to e-books.

Eight Knockout Reads from 2015

Year’s end brings a geyser of lists of the year’s “best books.”  I choose to modify this approach to report the best books that I read over the last year, since I get to few newly-issued books — pretty much only ones by friends or ones I’m writing a review of.  Otherwise, I’m either reading something for my own research or trying to catch up on the best titles of the 1920s.

So, here goes with what some might call a thumpingly “guy” list:


Even Woodrow Wilson? The “Purge Moment” Runs Amok

Over the summer of 2015, the argument over displaying the Confederate flag in public grounds galvanized public opinion.  Many conservative Southern Republicans agreed that such displays contradict our basic principles and publicly endorse bigotry.  Even South Carolina, birthplace of secession, relented on the Confederate flag.

That argument swiftly metastasized into a full-throated uproar over public statues and place names that honor people whose earlier prejudices ill suit our self-image as nation that blends many peoples together.  Even the New York Times, the official explainer of our lives, has christened this year a “purge moment,” one when Americans have begun to rummage through their psycho-historical closet and toss out their emotional bell-bottom trousers and other squirmy artifacts of earlier eras.

Harper Lee, Misogynist

Go set a watchman

After all the fuss about the release of Harper Lee’s second/first novel, Go Set A Watchman, I broke down and read it.  My wife, after all, had purchased the book, so I was just maximizing the value of the family purchase.

As I neared the novel’s end, my thoughts were in line with a number of the reviews I had read — not a great novel, but well-meaning.  It’s slow getting started, earnest in its intentions, weak on plot, contains some flashes of very fine observation of Southern society, and tussles with the central issue of the late 1950s in the South:  how to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that public schools in America could not be racially segregated.

The Enduring Lure of Richard Nixon

Nixon on his second day as president, Jan. 21, 1969.

Nixon on his second day as president, Jan. 21, 1969.

Coming up to the 41st anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation from the Presidency (August 9), we find that he’s still part of our national culture, like a barnacle that simply won’t be scraped off.

He was the heavy in the the first presidential election I remember — the jowly, borderline-scary guy who opposed the cool, collected, in-command John Kennedy.  To a nine-year-old, the choice was clear.  Who could trust this figure composed of so many dark elements?

Nazi Fatigue



I need a break from Nazis, Nazism, SS officers, concentration camps, swastikas, and the crazy guy with the toothbrush mustache.  Yeah, this guy.



They’re all powerful symbols, with deep back-story and instant cultural connections that are so useful to writers and movie directors.   And, to be fair, the Nazi era represents a moment in human history when the most educated society on the planet managed to come very close to collective insanity.  Pretty interesting.

Madison on TV: August 1814

White House burning

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the slick trailer just posted for a new TV documentary on Madison’s flight from Washington in August 1814, one jump ahead of British troops victorious from the Battle of Bladensburg.  After fleeing across the Potomac and spending the night in Virginia, Madison made his way to Brookeville, Maryland to try to reassemble the shattered American government after the British had burned Washington’s public buildings, including the White House (above).

What’s so bad about saying you were wrong?

I recently became fed up with the media reports about the presidential candidates and their “flip-flopping” on various issues.  For the rest of us, changing our mind is often described as learning, or even considering a matter more deeply.

For politicians, we have made it a sign of weakness, weak-mindedness, or craven pursuit of political advantage.  Don’t get me wrong.  Sometimes a politician’s change of position is due to those considerations.  But let’s talk about what the positions are, not the “gotcha” politics of hunting down inconsistent statements.  Was Lincoln a less credible advocate of emancipation because he previously didn’t support it?