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Do books ever change anything? And a note on Palin's print problem

With the Brooklyn Book Festival now behind us and the NY Art Book Fair just around the corner, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of the printed word and whether or not books matter as much now as they used to. I’m not talking about how we’re warming up to our e-readers and giving ink and paper the cold shoulder; I mean the relevancy and power of the content itself – no matter how you choose to access it.

Back in 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, an indictment against the unsanitary and inhumane conditions of workers in the meatpacking industry. At least, that was how he intended it. Readers, however, responded more to the deplorable and downright disgusting conditions of the animals being slaughtered, to the point that American meat sales dropped by 50%. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair said, “and, by accident, I hit it in the stomach.” The public was so outraged, in fact, that the book led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Today, writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have followed in Sinclair’s footsteps with The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, aka the book that will make you stop eating meat forever. Sure, it grossed us all out with its tales of worker mistreatment and general mechanized, flavorized meat nastiness, but we’re still eating it, aren’t we? It’s not as if McDonald’s or Burger King are hurting for a profit, and it’s not as if readers were so outraged they pressured lawmakers to pass legislation against the pink slime that gets breaded and fried and passed off as chicken. Oh wait, that’s right – there were a few people who complained about the number of calories in a Happy Meal, so McDonald’s now offers the option of apple slices to go with your breaded and fried pink slime.

Books still matter, of course, because books have always engaged the imaginations of readers and they will continue to do so as long as they’re written. But does the written word still hold the power it once did, back in the very first days of print, when the first political pamphlets papered the streets and actually spurred change in a real and lasting way? Of course not, and part of the reason is because back then, only really important things got printed on paper. Now, you can Tweet about scratching your butt and someone will read it (and probably reTweet it, too). But seriously, when was the last time you read something that got you all fired up? What about print’s descendants – radio, film, TV, the Internet – have any of those ever stirred you? Or have we, universally, become complacent?

I read on CNN’s Politics blog that Sarah Palin and her family had a “violent” reaction to Joe McGinniss’ new book, The Rogue: Searching for The Real Sarah Palin, but the repartee between McGinniss and the Palins is too much like the childish, name-calling fights on reality TV to take seriously. For starters, Todd Palin said McGinniss wrote the book “to satisfy his creepy obsession with my wife” and that he “needs to get a life.” McGinniss countered that he did not have an obsession with Sarah, and accused her of “inciting hatred with lies…her image and persona,” he said,” are entirely false.”

The book’s claims are mostly backed by unnamed sources, except for a few who came forward, like John Bitney, Sarah’s former legislative director, who claimed Sarah once “snorted cocaine off an overturned, 55-gallon oil drum while on a snowmobiling trip.” The pettiness, the slandering, the unprofessional back-and-forth and the the ugly, unsubstantiated game of he-said/she-said is about as close to investigative journalism as “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” yet it’s the most talked about book out now and will probably go right to the top of the NY Times Best Seller list. Just as our non-reaction to Fast Food Nation proves, they can serve us something marked ‘shit’ on a silver platter, they can even write an entire book about what absolute shit it is, but we’ll gobble it right up, because before we realize it really is shit like they said, all we’re thinking is, hey, this tastes pretty good.