Since I had the opportunity to bring up my favorite book review of all time a few weeks ago, Matt Taibbi's review of The World is Flat, three things have been bothering me. Two are direct quotes from Friedman's book. The other is the fact that it has sold more than 3 million copies.
These are the quotes that I cannot forget no matter how much $4.99 gin I drink:
"It created a global platform that allowed more people to plug and play, collaborate and compete, share knowledge and share work, than anything we have ever seen in the history of the world."
"And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere."
Mark Twain defined a "classic" as a book everyone praises but no one reads. As I compare Friedman's words to his sales figures I wonder if that is how "bestseller" is now defined. Look at those quotes and tell me: who reads this shit? Who honestly drops $25 for the hardcover and then subjects themselves for four hundred and seventy-three pages of pseudo-intellectual sloganeering and 1990s Wired buzzwords?
Three million American book-buyers did exactly that. Yet the same people likely to be attracted to Friedman's ideology (and his fact- and idea-free prose has nothing else going for it) seem to be the least likely to sit through 500 pages of anything, let alone something that reads like watching Milton Friedman masturbate.
The phenomenon of "shelf books" usually applies to books of significant literary prestige that lack entertainment value. In other words, we buy them to display on the bookcase to impress our cocktail party guests. It's the American way of acquiring the social cachet of intellectualism with nothing more than a valid credit card. Friedman's ramblings hardly qualify. Who chases prestige by advertising that he or she has read The Friedman Unit's latest sheaf of enthusiastic handjobbing for globalization? I understand why people buy, display, and never read Ulysses and Gravity's Rainbow, but in what reality does The World is Flat serve a similar purpose?
I have no empirical evidence about what anyone does with this book after buying it. Maybe everyone reads it cover-to-cover. Maybe no one does. I am merely struggling to develop a theory of how millions of copies of absolutely dreadful, repetitive books are sold to a public that doesn't read. If adults hardly read to begin with (and make no mistake, those self-reported numbers are wildly overstated) how are they being convinced to purchase 500-page books that are poorly-written, boring, and intellectually bankrupt? If we can eliminate pleasure, education, and prestige from the list of motives, I, like Thomas Friedman, am at a loss for ideas.