Thursday , May 23 2024
"We're sorry, Oprah. It will never happen again."

Book Review: America (The Book), Teacher’s Edition, Is Underwhelming

The original America (The Book) was hilarious and brilliant, one of the funniest books I have read in years. It probably helped that I was taking classes and reading textbooks when I read The Daily Show’s history textbook, subtitled “A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction.”  That play on words there continues throughout the book. It is witty, profane, cynical and on target at weaknesses in history books (e.g. eight chapters on America and then “Chapter 9: The Rest Of The World").

This follow-up paperback edition, labeled the “Teacher’s Edition,” is more underwhelming. If the first was an A, this is a C. The premise is amusing: they hired a historian, Professor Schultz, to fact-check the book. He ultimately gives it a C-.

The preface is the best part as the authors explain why this new edition was needed:
“The literary world has changed since 2004. A series of well-publicized scandals have called into questions the very meaning of such terms as “plagiarism,” “authenticity,” and “three-year crack binge.”

In references to the James Frey battle with Oprah over the accuracy of his book, the authors of this book explain that Internet journalists

…raised several troubling questions about our research methods, like “Did we have any?” We must now acknowledge their reporting is true. Despite our previous assertions that our work was accurate, America (The Book) cannot be trusted as a serious work of scholarship.

Why had we done it? We felt the changes served what we considered "the greater purpose of the book," which was making lots of money. Once the truth came out, Time Warner Publishing vowed to set things right for this paperback version by hiring a qualified fact-checker, or “de-fucker upper” as they’re known in the lit. biz. We needed a qualified expert to reconcile the statements in the book with historical reality, or, if they were irreconcilable, to issue a restraining order.

They end the preface with one last jab at the Frey-Oprah issue: “We’re sorry, Oprah. It will never happen again.”

Professor Schultz is thorough in fixing mistakes and chastising the sloppy writers.
Sometimes this is funny, such as on page 147 when he gets completely exasperated after finding page after page of mistakes.

He finally says, after telling them their data on one fact is off by 40 years, “Can’t you authors at least hover in the vicinity of the correct decade?” When the authors suggest Pat Buchanan and Bill Press hosted a show called “Fuck You,” which does seem like a catchy title, he correctly notes that FCC regulations prevent any show with such a title from airing on television.

He gets upset with one piece: "Ranking the President." The book states, “One of the most time-honored hobbies among presidential historians is ordering the presidents based on various criteria. They do this because they are physically weak and can pass it off as ‘sport'.” He writes, “Shame on you for revealing this closely guarded secret.”

On some pages there is more red ink from his corrections than actual text. This is the case, for example, on a page on Central America where the caption under a map of the region says, “One of these countries had something to do with Iran/Contra.”

When the book lists author Frank McCourt as part of America’s Court system – saying he “handles immigration issues with warmth and passion. Makes a great gift” – Schultz notes, “Frank McCourt is a person, not an actual court.”

But these “fixes” get old after a while and I found myself wishing there was more new content instead of just all these fake corrections. I flipped back to a comment in the preface about how the historian’s annotations helped “us meet not only our responsibility to you to provide the unvarnished truth about U.S. history, but our responsibility to ourselves to repackage the paperback enough to incentive repeat buyers.”

I sighed, realizing that this sentence which seemed funny at first read was actually, sadly, true. I found myself looking forward to the end of the book which includes his overall evaluation of the book.

This evaluation begins: “This book has many fine qualities, but its cavalier disregard for accuracy of questions, its insufficient scholarly documentation, its often quixotic use of illustrations, and its frequent usage of inappropriate language and word choices all detract from its virtue.” What a killjoy.

If you loved the original book and want a little more fun, check this one out. Otherwise I’d suggest you just stick to the original.

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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