Zazen – Vanessa V. File this under books I’ve wanted to read for several years, and when I finally did, was disappointed.

Zazen takes place in the near future, with the world on the verge of a mysterious war. People are fleeing the United States as war approaches and energy and individual liberties are severely rationed. Those who remain face daily bombings by various groups looking to either destabilize the existing power structure, or just scare the crap out of people. I liked the idea of a society in chaos and people struggling to figure out which path to take.

In execution, though, it was a bit too arty for me. Or poetic, perhaps, is the better term. Odd phrasings and random, oblique sentences thrown in. Metaphors that were a little too obtuse for me to find meaning in. And the characters weren’t terribly interesting. It’s hard to connect with a story when none of the main players are appealing.

Lots of people liked Zazen. It even won some awards. It just wasn’t for me.

Idiot America – Charles P. Pierce. File under political books that are written just how I like.

I complained earlier this year that Rachel Maddow’s book Drift suffered from how Americans want their political books written so they can be bought, read, and filed away quickly. No need for deep explorations of issues. Just throw out some anecdotes, pithy reactions, and move on to the next issue.

Pierce, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to explore a subject in depth. Here he looks at how Americans of all political stripes have cast aside the idea of true political debate that the Founding Fathers were interested in for a dumbed-down, commoditized form of debate. Facts, evidence, and reasoning are no longer the most important elements of a political discussions. Instead, a sexy theory is valued more than experience and evidence and quality of presentation trumps truth. Imagined conspiracies (Who shot JFK) are given more consideration and legitimacy than real conspiracies (Watergate, Iran/Contra) which are dismissed as too complex to understand or not important to regular folks.

He presents a three-fold argument on how issues enter the mainstream of political discussion. 1) A theory is valid if it sells, 2) anything can be true if someone says it loud enough, 3) and fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is measure by how fervently those people believe.

It sounds cynical, but as he lays out over and over again, it is sadly an accurate description of our culture.

It has never been easy to be an informed citizen. It takes work to do research instead of just listening to people who share your worldview and adopting their opinions. That task is even more difficult in our society, where we live in a flood of information. It’s easier to view politics and government as just another form of entertainment and sit back and watch the show instead of taking the time and effort to dig through the mess and find out where the real, boring truth lies.

But, as Pierce points out, giving in to the temptations of our entertainment-political media is what gives the cranks that used to be shunned, or viewed as momentary diversions from reality, control of our dialogue. And that’s how we end up fighting about either issues of absolute zero importance (who wore a flag pin on their lapel) or about manufactured controversies not based in truth (He shares a long list of ginned up controversies by various right wing talk show hosts that were built on lies that, when repeated often enough, were treated as reasonable arguments by the mainstream media). Which does two things: turns people off of political debate and pushes those who remain engaged further apart.

And that’s how you get elected officials, even those in the political minority, who refuse to even talk to their counterparts opposite them in ideology and a citizenry that refuses to hold those officials accountable for ruining the country.

In other, shorter, words, this is a real up-lifter.

Summer Of 68 – Tim Wendel. File this under great idea that could have been executed just a little better.

1968 was a momentous year in baseball, culminating in the fantastic World Series between St. Louis and Detroit. It was the “Year of the Pitcher”, when Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, and Luis Tiant all turned in historical performances. It was the last year before the second round of expansion, which split each league into divisions and birthed the League Championship series before the World Series. And, in response to the insane pitching numbers, the mound was lowered and strike zone reduced before the 1969 season.

Meanwhile MLK and RFK were murdered, Americans fought each other in the streets of Chicago as the party of the incumbent president tried to select its candidate for the fall election, and the Vietnam war continued to take the lives of young Americans in Southeast Asia. While baseball seemed as popular as ever, Joe Namath’s New York Jets were about to win the Super Bowl, forcing the NFL and AFL to merge, and completing football’s ascent as the nation’s most popular sport.

There’s a lot going on there, and much can be said about the shifts taking place in the US in 1968. But Wendel keeps it fairly light. There are no deep dives to find out what it all means. It’s just a chance to take a look at a great baseball season and connect it to some other important events in the country’s history.