The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, November 26, 2003  

Even at The Rittenhouse Review

I asked readers earlier today to participate in a thoroughly unscientific survey aimed at determining whether readers could identify which of the books promoted in the sidebar at right were most likely to send traffic to by virtue of either their cover designs and or their contents.

Thanks to everyone who participated. A smart group of people, you are. As a group, Rittenhouse readers were remarkably accurate in their assessment of the featured books based on covers or contents -- at least as I see the covers and contents, and that’s another, similarly unscientific, study entirely. (By the way, some of you, including, I feel compelled to note, K.H., are pretty funny, too.)

The three books on the sidebar at right that the latest statistics reveal have generated the most traffic to Amazon in the fourth quarter to date are: So80s, by Patrick McMullan; In Her Shoes, by Jennifer Weiner; and Gossip Girl: Because I’m Worth It, by Cecily von Ziegesar.

What to make of this? The cover of So80s shows an intriguing photograph of, well, I don’t know who she is, but her bust clearly is the center of attention in the shot. The cover of In Her Shoes features an illustration of “girl-on-girl” -- Rick Santorum really hates it when I say that -- under-the-table footsy. And the cover of Gossip Girl shows the headless, but not breast-less, photo of an attractive young woman.

See a pattern here?

The almost inescapable conclusion is that even at Rittenhouse, this hotbed of grim and humorless left-wing intellectualism, sex sells. Sex sells books. Or at least it gets people to look at books. Or look more closely at the covers of books. Who says liberals are no fun?

[Maybe this should have been a contest instead of a survey. Reader C.V. got two out of three on this question, C.V.’s only slip being the substitution of A Royal Duty, by Paul Burrell, for In Her Shoes. K.M. also got two out of three, missing In Her Shoes with the offering of Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. And the aforementioned K.H., while picking In Her Shoes and Gossip Girl, missed only So80s by suggesting The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisenberger. But there was an intriguing -- and disturbing -- theory underlying the choices: “chop[ping] a piece off the female body” seems to work, K.H. noted. Nice parting gifts would have been appropriate for all three readers, don’t you think? (Note to self: Find distributor of inexpensive but tasteful parting gifts. Maybe call Don Pardo?)]

As for books that generate traffic due to their content, a little guesswork is required. Certainly, So80s, In Her Shoes, and Gossip Girl offer much more than their covers -- there are pages inside them after all, and besides, every time I take one of Jennifer Weiner’s novels out of the library another patron immediately submits a request pulling it out of my hands -- so no slight or insult is intended here.

The statistics show that the next batch of high-traffic generators are: Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson; Had Enough?, by James Carville; and Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

The covers of these three books feature, respectively, the esteemed gentlemen Messrs. Franklin, Carville, and Franken. (Sorry, Walter.) With that in mind, one must ask, is it the contents or the covers that’s generating the traffic? Franklin, you probably know, was considered something of a ladies’ man in his day. Perhaps his allure extends even to our own times and we don’t even know it. (Walter?) I’m not sure the same can be said about Carville and Franken, but I could be wrong about that, and so I wonder whether Carville and Franken aren’t entitled to feel a little bit better about themselves right now, at least in the shallow, superficial way we think about people at Rittenhouse. Face it, guys, you’re hot.

Similarly, Madam Secretary, the memoirs of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and Living History, by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the covers of which are graced by terrific photographs of the authors, pulled well during their since-discontinued tenures on the sidebar. Babes both, I suppose. (And really, really smart, too, let’s not forget that. Just like the guys, who I forgot to say are smart.)

So how to determine, or guess really, which books are sending readers to Amazon by virtue solely, or at least for the most part, by their contents and not their covers? Looking down the list again, we find, in descending order: The Great Unraveling, by Paul Krugman; What Liberal Media?, by Eric Alterman; The Soul of Capitalism, by William Greider; The Lies of George W. Bush, by David Corn; and Big Lies, by Joe Conason.

With this group of books there again is clearly something at work, and I think the readers who participated in the survey, who, again, collectively, were pretty much dead on about this list, know it.

Although all five books were written by men, and a group of rather attractive men at that -- especially Alterman, who’s kind of hot, I think, though not in a psychotic John Derbyshire kind of way, but in a more normal kind of hot way -- none of these authors has his face featured on the cover of his book. In fact, there are no faces -- or bodies, or chopped-off parts of bodies -- on the covers of any of these books, with the possible exception of Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush, which incorporates a typically creepy shot of the beady little eyes of the sitting president.

For the most part, the covers of these books aren’t going to win any design awards. So it’s safe to say that sex, or sex appeal, isn’t what’s drawing readers’ attention to this fine collection of contemporary commentary. What is, then?

I suspect, and I’m going into all-serious-and-stuff mode here, it’s a pervasive sense of frustration, anger, and even despair, mixed with an uneasy combination of hopelessness and optimism; a deep-seated concern about the state of the nation and the economy; apprehension over the current fundamentally misguided direction of the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policies; a profound distrust of the media; and a strong sense that justice and honesty still mean something, somewhere, to someone.

And that tells me all I need to know, and pretty much what I expected I would learn, about Rittenhouse readers.


By the way, while I’m here and all, I really have to put in a plug (a meaningful and heartfelt plug, not the Rosie “Everything Ever Performed on Broadway Is and Was Great, Especially My New Show” O’Donnell kind of lying plug) for The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, a recent gift from Dwight Meredith, formerly of P.L.A., now writing for Wampum.

I picked up Moon’s book the other night at bedtime, swearing I would read only the first chapter and then go to sleep. I had to force myself to turn off the lights after completing chapter four. It’s that good. (Thanks, Dwight.)

And also a plug for The Devil Wears Prada, another book on the sidebar that draws significant reader interest to Amazon. Weisenberger could have used a better editor when it came to rendering dialogue and conveying emotions, but her tale of an editorial assistant’s year in hell will amuse not only those who have worked in magazine publishing and/or are familiar with the legendary fickleness and cruelty of Vogue’s Anna Wintour, but anyone who can still remember the absurd assignments performed on his first job out in the real world.

For me, it was arranging the limousines. Down to the minute. I did that because I had to do that, in the age before cell phones no less, and despite that hindrance almost perfectly and with a sense of pride that, when you think about everything involved -- and you can’t imagine the half of it -- is not unjustified. No matter what else I was doing, and there was a lot of it, I knew without writing it down where all of the cars were or were supposed to be at every moment, whether parked or moving. (And it wasn’t like I was working for a dispatching company or anything. This was for “the firm.”) I can still picture the buildings and intersections to which I directed the drivers and about which I was forced to berate them for not reaching on time or approaching near enough, or for waiting at the uncovered entrance in inclement weather (“Mrs. Smith is waiting on the other side of the building. You know, where she won’t have to stand in the rain.”), or for idling too close to the cops’ favorite “no standing” zones, those that were most likely to get them a ticket that would have caused delays, or forgetting someone’s second wife or mistress (“Harry, Miss Brown needs to be taken back to the Ritz-Carlton. . . . No, now. Get her out of the bar. I don’t care if you have to pick her up and carry her. . . . I don’t care that it’s ‘two-for-one’ and she just started her first. She’s got to get moving. . . . We’ll reimburse her. . . . Look, Mrs. Jones is having dinner there tonight. Get Missy the hell out of that place!”), any of which “disasters” would have had our necks. And I can still remember the location of every damned pay phone a driver might need to use and the closest place he could get quarters if he needed them and asked really, really nicely because I checked around and pleaded and left my card with shopkeepers, and scoped it all out ahead of time and on my own time, and periodically reappraised the lay of the land for the necessary updates and revisions.

But I’ll shut up. It’s Weisenberger’s book, not mine, and it’s a great read.

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