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Michael Taube

I am pleased to join Books in Canada as a monthly columnist reviewing works of non-fiction. The task at hand is a difficult one, however. Not in terms of writing my column, but rather getting BiC readers intrigued by works of politics, history, and economics. Some people are genuinely scared off by non-fiction, including editors. I know of journalists who have struggled¨and often failed¨to sell book reviews on international topics. Unless the author's name is recognizable, as with William F. Buckley, Neil Postman and David McCullough, or the book has ties to Canada, many are quickly rejected. Some newspapers, including the National Post, have valiantly tried to rectify the situation by increasing the amount of international non-fiction reviews. Other newspapers have opted to rely primarily on miniscule selections of Canadian non-fiction, including the Toronto Star. The primary goal of a newspaper is to increase circulation and sell the product. An important secondary goal is to give insight on a wide range of issues. If a publication is unwilling to examine regularly topics from across the 49th parallel and beyond, it goes without saying that their loyal readership will follow suit. The same thing happens with non-fiction book reviews¨the fewer there are in print, the less likely it is that people will be sufficiently interested to purchase the product. Few would deny that works of fiction easily outpace non-fiction in terms of sales and popularity. Novels of romance, mystery, science fiction, and comedy are widely consumed by ravenous book readers. Fantasy and intrigue are the cultural commodities of this generation, the purest form of escapism we have in society besides movies. Non-fiction is not seen as a sexy product, but rather as boring intellectual matter. Small exceptions to this rule include Tom Clancy and James Michener, both of whom combine elements of fiction and non-fiction in their work.

Yet, the perception with respect to non-fiction books is inaccurate. In fact, some people are missing out on a wealth of information and ideas. Non-fiction can be exciting and intriguing (yes, I'm being serious). You won't solve mysteries like Sherlock Holmes, slip into your umpteenth daydream from a Harlequin romance, or join Harry Potter at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But you will learn about great civilizations, important historical battles, crucial political decisions, and unique philosophical arguments. At the very least, you will begin to understand or reject the other side of an issue, be it taxation, government institutions, or even the Coke vs. Pepsi cola wars. It's all there, waiting to be discovered. My hope is that this column opens the door wide enough to bring more people in.

Let's begin with an examination of Encounter Books. In less than two years of existence, Encounter has become one of the most thought-provoking conservative publishing companies in the U.S. Based in a fairly liberal city, San Francisco, this publishing house has nevertheless yielded some excellent non-fiction books on a wide range of topics. The movers and shakers at Encounter do not shy away from controversy; in fact, they relish the opportunity to generate it. I first discovered Encounter last year when two of its releases, Robert Kagan and William Kristol's Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy and Peter Hitchens' The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana, started receiving sterling reviews. The former book, edited by two prominent conservative thinkers, refers to the popular topic of the new geopolitical map. Included are intense chapters on problems with China, the Middle East peace process, Russia's collapse, and the North Korean threat with nuclear weapons. The latter book, written by the conservative brother of leftist critic Christopher Hitchens, was a stunning attack on British culture. He blasted the aura of "Tony Blairism," which has helped contribute to declines in literacy, to massive criticism against private schools and older universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, and to the increase of sexual promiscuity.

Since that time, Encounter has continued to impress with its selection of titles. Many books are very personal in nature, dealing with political transitions and controversial policy decisions. Three recent releases stand out in this regard. Wesley J. Smith has written books with former U.S. Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. He also happens to be an attorney for the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force. His new book, Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America, treats bioethicism as having "generally abandoned the sanctity-of-life ethic that proclaims the inherent moral worth of all people." The book is a triumph, combining little known facts and powerful case examples. Many bioethicists, including early pioneers such as Joseph Fletcher, have completely rejected religious teachings, meaning that they are out of step with most Americans. The puzzling case of Elizabeth Bouvia, a quadriplegic who tried to commit suicide by self-starvation, is also discussed. Bouvia checked into a hospital for palliative care to relieve dehydration, fought the hospital when they inserted a feeding tube to keep her alive and won, yet soon resumed eating and left the hospital with no explanation. It appears that patient autonomy carries a price too high for some to pay. Readers must also consider the "Pittsburgh Protocol," the University of Pittsburgh's Medical Center's horrendous policy that "allows organ procurement two minutes after heart death." Since there is always the possibility of recovery with CPR and self-resuscitation, it remains questionable whether or not the donor is actually dead.

The title of Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein's book will cause some discomfort¨Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906. But don't be frightened off. It is an extraordinary tale of a controversial gubernatorial contest in Georgia that promoted race hatred and destroyed race relations in the South for decades. Readers will discover that although whites and blacks were certainly not equal in the eyes of the law in Atlanta, there was progress being made at the turn of the last century. Some white storekeepers employed blacks and gave them proper wages, while various black journalists and educators were becoming commonplace in the city. Unfortunately, Hoke Smith, the Democratic candidate for governor and former liberal on racial issues, worked Atlanta society into a frenzy by playing to their fears about interracial relationships and rape. Thus, progress in the city¨and the South¨was cut short.

The third book is Ronald Radosh's Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. Although there have been several books discussing the transition of former communists to political conservatism¨including David Horowitz's Radical Son, Radosh's tale could be the best. With great wit and charm, he dissects the political left with a fine comb. He was connected within the movement, friendly with Pete Seeger (once coined "America's best-loved Commie" by the Washington Post), Michael Lerner and Bob Dylan. Radosh provides insights into various Communist Party summer camps and their indoctrination practices. We even discover that communist females were sexually liberated at the camp he attended, Wingdale on the Lake, known as a "den of love." His dramatic political shift occurred once he started a book about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the famous communist spies put to death for their treachery. Despite believing as a child that the Rosenbergs "were innocent progressivesÓmurdered because of their dedication to peace," he concluded they were guilty after examining numerous government files. He was declared a traitor by his ex-friends, and began to understand that most of what he had believed in the past was a lie.

Encounter deserves credit for introducing legions of readers to unique ideas and views. Some people will not agree with the message or theme of a particular Encounter book. But the fact is that works of non-fiction are part of a learning process, a means of improving one's knowledge in a particular subject area. And what better way to start off a monthly column.


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