Race (And Read) Of A Lifetime

Race of a LifetimeI’d normally say that a reader’s awareness of how clever writers are and how many eloquent, too-clever words they use is a sign of the writers trying too hard and of their pomposity. But nothing’s further from that truth with John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House. In fact, the only reason I noticed their extensive and impressive vocabulary was because it was so simply used, and so many less-common, but no-less-beautiful words were slotted in so effortlessly and eloquently into the pages of this 430-ish page book.

I found myself dog-earing pages and making mental notes to find a way to use such words. Of course, they all escape me now, but having read this mighty book, I’m all too conscious of my apparently limited writing and speaking vocabulary.

The writers employing such words are of the accomplished New York magazine and Time, respectively, with such other publication notches to their names as the New Yorker, the Economist, Wired, and ABC News. I know that years of writing for these esteemed publications has honed their craft and extended their knowledge, with words gathering to them like magnets over time. But it’s also their turn of phrase—simple, direct, active, keenly observed that makes the words, grouped together, so powerful.

Race of a Lifetime was recommended to me by one of my best friends—someone who knows how voraciously I read and who doesn’t often feel comfortable pointing me in the direction of books. The glowing endorsement she gave combined with the intriguing concept of the book told me I absolutely had to read it.

The culmination of hundreds of interviews with key players—both on and off the record—and filled with inside information that can only be obtained through long-held and strongly-forged professional relationships, Race of a Lifetime is perhaps the most comprehensive and most compelling look at the race between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and a host of other players such as John Edwards.

It’s fast-paced and thrilling, with Heilemann and Halperin making you feel as though you’re not only inside the room, you’re inside the players’ heads. Having read it voraciously for three days straight, including on a notoriously attention-sapping long-haul plane ride, I can hand-on-my-heart say (fitting given it’s a book that looks largely at American patriotism and precisely what it takes to commit yourself wholly to a process and country to win a game-changing presidential race) that Race of a Lifetime is stellar. And I say that as someone who’s not overly interested in (and who is incredibly frustrated by) politics and the guff that goes around it.

Heilemann and Halperin convey the tension, the emotion, and the details of the history-making pre-selection and presidential candidature process that saw the USA recently elect its first African American president. The campaign was long, arduous, and at times funny, and I feel as though I know Obama, the Clintons, McCain, and Palin more intimately and more truthfully than ever before.

The bulk of the book’s content concentrates on the at-times-vicious race for Democratic party endorsement between Obama and Clinton, as well as Bill’s at-times-crazy contributions to it.  The latter third of the book introduces McCain and the woman who was both fascinating and like watching an only-in-America train wreck: gun-toting former beauty queen Palin. The examinations of each candidate aren’t always flattering—in fact, I do wonder if they’re these days trying to work out who leaked what to whom and when—but are simultaneously humanising and intriguing.

We see just how difficult, extensive, and hard-fought the battle was between Obama and Clinton—leading me to marvel at the kind of miracle that either of them made it over the line still standing in spite of their exhaustion. We understand the complexity of the media-drenched, fundraising-driven process that appears, to largely disinterested and objective outside observers like me, quite befuddling. And of course, we catch a glimpse of an answer into what McCain was thinking in selecting the off-the-wall Palin as his running mate. I could tell you, but that would ruin it for you. Instead I’ll simply say you should definitely read Race of a Lifetime to find out for yourself. It may have been the race of a lifetime. I’d say it’s the read of one too.

Algorithm and Blues

Image copyright Nick Gentry ©

On the eve of the election, two things I have read this week have combined in my head and I have not been able to stop thinking about them. The first thing is the excellent comment that Dave Freer left on my post earlier this week. The second is this video by music critic Chris Weingarten. The subject of these two influences – or at least the tenuous connection I have built between them – is the conflict between the benefits of technology and the tyranny of numbers.

OK, so even to me that sounds a bit dramatic. But it is true. I’ve touched on this topic before in a previous post, and I came to the conclusion that optimisation of artistic expression by algorithm may well be possible, and even useful, but it’s really bloody depressing. I still feel this way. I was at first skeptical of Dave’s explanation of how mathematical modelling of book acquisition could be possible, but he convinced me. Snip:

At the moment, you have your gut feel and the bookscan figures to decide what you buy. If you had better quality data (ie. laydown, returns, normal sales of that sub-genre and laydown within each geographic area … you could say which … would make your company more money, which had the lower risk, what was actually a reasonable ask for the books in question. It could also tell the retailer which were good bets for their area, and publisher where to push distribution. It doesn’t over-ride judgement, it just adds a tool which, when margins are thin, can make the world of difference.

I am forced to agree with Dave that if such a tool were available it would be of great use to publishers to help decide what to buy, and in a great many instances, what books would sell (if you still don’t believe it, I recommend reading the whole thing). Nonetheless, it fills me with despair. As Weingarten says in the video I linked to, most of us who got into the world of writing did so because we suck at maths. But it’s not just that. There’s a kind of ethical issue at stake here too. The availability of a tool like this would make publishers lazy. I once heard the use of test audiences for TV pilots and films described as being more about ass covering than actually predicting the success or failure of a film. And I have to say the same thought occurs to me about the statistical modelling of book acquisition.

This is not to say the information wouldn’t be useful, but it would mean that when a book that tested well in the model bombed, publishers could throw their hands up in the air and say, “Well, it tested well.” It would be a tool that sales directors and corporate executives would use to dampen creativity in publishing. Presumably (though correct me if I’m wrong, Dave!) the sales of statistical outliers that don’t easily fit into a pre-existing genre or sub-genre would not be easily predicted under this model. And there are a lot of books that don’t fit into genres. I’ve heard it said that when it comes to books there are almost as many genres as there are books. Does that mean that publishers would just use their own judgement? Or would they be even more unlikely than they already are to take on books that aren’t safe bets?

Of course, Dave will probably tell us that this amazing statistical model would only be a tool. It wouldn’t ‘override judgement’ as he says in the quote above. But humans like to rely on machines and numbers – especially when it comes to difficult decisions. Sometimes that comes at the cost of something difficult to quantify. And perhaps on this day, when the leaders of our country are trying to win an election based as much upon the statistically predicted thoughts of a few key voters in a few key marginal seats as any true leadership, beliefs, policies or moral character, I fear that ceding our decision-making to an algorithm has the potential to take away far more than it gives us. What do you think?