Reading is a very complex process as the following examples try to show.
Every book is a genre all its own. It is a combination or play on some combination of other types of books, and so lives up to what is taken to be Polonius’s over the top statement in Act II, Scene ii of Hamlet about the players:
The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
As usual, Polonius knows what he is talking about. Nobody composes afresh; everyone adapts the genres that are there. The writers of the Gospels were fresh in that they reworked the tale of a man going to meet his fate, as that might happen in a Greek tragedy, to Oedipus for example, into an exemplary and unique story, endlessly to be repeated, of a god-inspired personage working out the inevitabilities of his nature and his destiny in the course of his short and doomed ministry. And, at the more comic end of the spectrum, It is reported that Lucille Ball got wind of meetings where producers would ask for a Lucille Ball like comedy with someone else. Ball got the message and moved to television and became “Lucy”.
But that is not the whole of it. Every paragraph of a book is also a distinct entity. It has a structure and a tone different from that of the paragraphs which preceded it and which follow it. Part of the pleasure of reading is the interaction between the reader’s imagination, memory and analysis and what is there to be discovered in every paragraph. So while most literary remarks about a recent book, John A. Farrell’s “Richard Nixon: The Life”, might tell a reader that they can garner pleasure from a set piece such as Farrell’s clear retelling of the Alger Hiss investigation, or from Farrell’s not that well done overall presentation of Nixon as America’s very own Richard III, though I would let him off easy on that because he is competing with Shakespeare, let us attend, instead, to how just a few of Farrell’s paragraphs provide their pleasures.
Here is one:
“His name was Murray Chotiner, and he was a thirty-six year old attorney from Los Angeles. He was a slick operator with a clientele that ran to gamblers and bookies, and a passion for politics-- a moon-faced man given to flashy suits, loud ties, and lovely women. (He and his pal Kyle Palmer went through wives like other men replaced their lawn mowers.) Chotiner was a political prodigy. He had attended UCLA, graduated from law school at twenty, opened an eponymous consulting firm, and directed Earl Warren’s campaign in Southern California in 1942. He alienated the governor by asking him to intervene on behalf of an unsavory client--’Chotiner was nothing but a two-bit crook,’ Warren aide Warren Olney would insist-- but in the fall of 1945, when the Amateurs [a group of Nixon early supporters who saw him as a potential statesman] launched their drive, the Republican hierarchy assigned Chotiner to babysit. Day put him on the payroll for a flat retainer of $500.”
This is a nice capsule biography. It captures Chotiner’s low life connections, and his seedy ways, and also that he had proven useful to estimable people, such as the future Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren. What the reader learns is that politicians make use of such people, and so one shouldn’t be surprised that Nixon would also, and would again turn to Chotiner in his campaign a mere four years later for the Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas. Farrell will later go on to discuss Chotiner’s preference for a dirty campaign, but here it is clear enough that he might not be a respecter of intellectual niceties. The reader is set up for what might come next-- though it could also be the case that the seedy Chotiner might turn out to be priggish about political ethics, though that is not the way it turns out. So there is drama in even a capsule biography. Moreover, even for a reader familiar with the names associated with Nixon, it is a refresher course on Chotiner, placing the name with the deeds, just as happens very often when people cling to the name of a person or a place and then fill in or rediscover what it means, as when one remembers that Dawson was the site of the Yukon gold rush but gets a sense of what it looks like, a flat, triangular piece of land between the mountains and the river, only by looking it up on the internet. There are a lot of names like that in a book about Nixon: Haldeman, Mitchell, Stans, and so on.
Here is another paragraph from a few pages later:
“Nixon had no taste for such fine distinctions and reckoned the voters would not either. ‘Nixon moved in and took the anti-Communist line. It was, I’m sure, in accordance with his beliefs and...it was the biggest, hottest issue...a gut issue,’ Amateur Mac Faries recalled. The argument was syllogistic: Voorhis was endorsed by NC-PAC...the NC-PAC was aligned with the CIO...ergo, Voorhis was a stooge for Communists. Faries and a few others balked. But when he ‘objected to the strength Nixon was putting into his efforts on the Red issue, ‘ Faries said, ‘my objections were overruled.’”
This paragraph is not a biography filled with facts, as was the first one cited. Rather, it is the dramatic retelling of a pivotal moment in a political career from the point of view of a skeptical onlooker. The pleasure here for the reader comes from finding an anchor on which to hang the burden of the book. The paragraph shows the Nixon character getting baked in, whether that choice to go negative had been made inevitable or not by Nixon’s psychology or the nature of politics, you doing what you have to do to win even if it means overlooking distinctions Nixon was perfectly capable of making, Nixon never able to understand why people did not accept that alongside the opportunistic Nixon was a Nixon interested in foreign policy and willing to come to thoughtful and even original conclusions about what to do. The paragraph shows a point in time when the decision was made, as well as its reverberations throughout his career, something to be consulted in the reader’s memory even without having gotten further into the book, even as the book recites stories that over and over again show Nixon taking the low road whenever he thought he had to. There you have in a single paragraph the theme, the arch, of the story as a whole, from the first campaign for the House of Representatives to the attempt to cover up the Watergate burglary, when he had so much more to lose--the Presidency itself-- and yet could not resist the urge to find a way to underhandedly manipulate a bad situation.
Richard Nixon, whether you like him or not, was a towering figure in American politics, who in his person alone was able to unite the Eastern and Western wings of the Republican Party, the internationalists and the bankers with the Main Street Republicans, until they were joined by the white Southerners looking for a new home now that the Democratic Party had deserted them by passing Civil Rights legislation. Nixon was a front page player from 1946 to 1976, when the pardon Gerald Ford granted him probably played a part in defeating Ford’s attempt to become an elected President. What the Farrall book does is make us savor, paragraph by paragraph, the details of that remarkable and ill-starred career.