The Common Good

In the Stacks, November 6, 2012

Among my must reads are the Sunday New York Times Book Review and other book reviews I come across in various media outlets. There are too many books being published that I would love to read, but just don’t have the time. So, I rely on reading book reviews as one way of keeping in touch with what’s being written.

Photo by Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock.com
Photo by Tischenko Irina/Shutterstock.com

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Here are my picks from this week’s books.

“The Courage to Hope: How I Stood Up to the Politics of Fear”

By Shirley Sherrod with Catherine Whitney, reviewed by Kevin Boyle

In the summer of 2009, the U. S. Department of Agriculture named Shirley Sherrod its director of rural development for the state of Georgia. It was a routine appointment, one of thousands the Obama administration made that year, except for two things. Never before had an African American held the position. And Sherrod had spent 40 years working on behalf of Georgia’s rural poor, sometimes in opposition to the very programs she would be running. That made her selection an audacious act, a sign — small as it was — of change. Thirteen months later, she was very abruptly, very publicly fired.

The triggering event was a video posted by the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, featuring a tiny fraction of a speech Sherrod had recently given to a local branch of the NAACP. The clipseemed to show her bragging about having turned away a white farmer who’d come to her for help, a blatant case of reverse discrimination. Within a few hours the story was all over Fox News. In response, the NAACP denounced her actions as “shameful.” And the White House insisted that she tender her resignation. Only later did anyone bother to listen to the rest of Sherrod’s speech. It turned out that the incident she’d described had taken place not during her tenure with the USDA but 23 years earlier, when she worked for a nonprofit organization.

‘The Signal and the Noise’

By Nate Silver, reviewed by Noam Scheiber

While “The Signal and the Noise” doesn’t chronicle Silver’s rise, it marks an important milestone in his ascent. For that reason, it could turn out to be one of the more momentous books of the decade. Journalism is in a strange place these days. Cable and the Internet crippled the old media establishment; political polarization dealt it a death blow. In the meantime, no new establishment has risen up to take its place. What we have is a growing sense of intellectual nihilism. The right-wing media speak only to true believers. Liberal journalists are often more fact-conscious but equally partisan, while mainstream outlets have a rapidly dwindling audience. Few media institutions command widespread credibility.

I think Silver — or at least Silver-ism — has the potential to fill the void. Silver uses statistics to scrutinize the claims of people who don’t always have an incentive to be accurate.  Until now, he took aim mostly at sports pundits and political handicappers. But the book hints at his ambitions to take on weightier questions.

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