An exercise in empty provocation

For some reason The Huffington Post featured an excerpt from one of my latest books, Stuff Every American Should Know, on their book page yesterday. The excerpt, designed as a slide show, is the top story in that section right now (will change soon, no doubt) with 1,906 comments as I’m writing this. The other metrics are astonishing, at least to me and my wife/co-author. We’ve never had a blog post associated with one of our books garner, at last glance, 6,780 Facebook likes, 79 Tweets, 32 mentions on Google Plus, 304 emails, and 1,616 Facebook shares.

That’s nice, even cool. But it’s also weird.

The excerpt is from a section in the book where we listed 10 books we thought Americans should read, though HuffPo modified it on the jump to headline: “10 Books Every American NEEDS to Read.” (Their caps.)

I don’t think there’s anything controversial on this list. It’s got everything from Common Sense by Thomas Paine to Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. We made the selections with the help of our editor, and I remember being pretty frustrated about the selections.

How can you pick just 10? What does it mean to pick just 10? If we can only pick 10, given the thrust of our book, shouldn’t we pick titles that somehow comment on key points in American history or which were historically significant in some way? We tried our best. Any list like this is always going to be idiosyncratic in some way. So be it. Duh.

The comments to HuffPo’s post are just what you’d expect: jokey (“Americans read?”), helpfully suggestive (“I’d pick Moby Dick, Fahrenheit 451…”), proud tallying (“I’ve read 9 out of the 10!”) and angry/snarky (“I can’t believe they didn’t pick X!” “This list is the usual crap!”)—and worse. We were frankly amazed how worked up some people got by the choices.

Though we checked the comment count as it rose all day yesterday, we didn’t jump into the fray. It didn’t really feel like it was our argument to join. I daresay most people didn’t realize that the article was excerpted from a book; in fact, some people made it clear by their comments and Tweets that they thought HuffPo had made the picks. We received only one Tweet from a stranger complimenting us on the post, and no new Twitter follows yesterday, if that’s any any gauge.

If I had just come across this article on my own, without having any connection to it, I probably would have looked at the picks and moved on. No comment. It’s another 10 Things post. I see the reaction HuffPo got as somehow indicative of how efficient the web is at wasting our time than anything else. 

A writer friend wrote to ask how our sales were doing in light of the post. The book’s rank was in the mid-five figures on Amazon prior to the story breaking. It’s under 2,000 now, and judging from Novelrank, which I use to gauge sales, we probably sold about 10 or 15 books—nice, but far less than 1 percent of all likes/shares/Tweets/emailed things. But bear in mind that the book came out Tuesday, so it’s still at the very “peak” of its selling cycle.