The media are obsessed with tweets – whether they are from the Kardashian clan or the President of the United States – and Americans, particularly young Americans, think they are “in the know” by staying on top of what’s trending in social media.
But what do we really know? We know what “everyone” is talking about, but I suspect we’d all have to admit that social media is confirmation bias writ large. We seek what we want to hear, we retweet what we already agree with, and we argue with (rather than seek to understand) points of view we don’t already embrace.
Learning something new is work. It’s often frustrating, and it’s often not fun. Some people enjoy learning; vastly more of us enjoy knowing. But to truly understand something new takes more than 140 characters.
And changing someone’s mind is an even higher bar.
I confess that I often tell authors not to worry about writing for people who disagree with them. Don’t try to convert people, I say, at least not at first. Focus on your core market, the people who already want to hear what you have to say, and give them new insights, data and stories to explain your point of view and inform their own.
But every once in a while, there is a book that presents such a clear, compelling, coherent case for the author’s argument that it rises above the noise. It reaches across the aisle. It bridges the divide – or perhaps simply ignores it – as it presents a paradigm that actually reframes how people think about the world.
I was reminded of this recently when I saw an article mentioning a Regnery book read by White House Senior Advisor Stephen Miller 20 years ago that had “turned him into a conservative.” (Let’s leave aside, for now, that the point of the article seemed to be to demonize Miller). I’ve met many people over the years at conferences and speeches who tell me about books, political and otherwise, that converted them to a new point of view. For me, it was Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which I read in high school. The very technology that made books widely available changed the course of history. And of course, a Book has converted hundreds of millions of people over the millennia.
Plenty of books present new information, or explain the world in new ways. But these are almost always derivative, a continuation down a road already being traveled. A truly original idea is rare. It is genius. And there is no better vehicle for such genius than: a book.
Who is responsible for such books? How can publishers set changing the world through new ideas as their goal, when Amazon and Facebook “curate” your reality, when Barnes & Noble struggles to stay in business, when social media is merely a weapon to attack ideas you disagree with and demonize those who say them, when too many universities are more interested in promoting an agenda than exposing students to new, different, strange and uncomfortable ideas?
I propose that we are.
I’m sure some who read this will attack me and my press, pointing out the books and authors we’ve published who very strongly articulate their own ideas and attack others. Fair enough. But publishing provocative and controversial, even offensive (to some) books is not irresponsible, as long as what is presented as facts are true and what is presented as opinion is clearly labeled as such. (I recall when we published a hotly contested book in 2004 called “Unfit for Command,” by John O’Neill. Editors across the country called the book “discredited,” without any evidence at all, so O’Neill issued a public challenge: if someone could prove that anything in his book was untrue, he would pay them $1 million. No one ever collected on that, because of course the facts were true, they were just uncomfortable).
When I say “we are,” I of course mean publishers. But I also mean readers. I mean thinkers. I mean learners. I mean all of us. Because writing and publishing books is only half the battle. We also have to be willing to read them.
When was the last time you read a book that taught you something new? When was the last time you read a book that changed your mind?
My middle daughter and I disagree strongly on politics. She proposed we have a “summit” where we will meet to discuss and debate ideas. To prepare, she and I each promise to read a book recommended by the other. I know reading that book will be frustrating and perhaps sometimes infuriating. But I hope we both learn new things, and perhaps even change our minds about some of those things, bringing us closer together.
So, won’t you join me?
Marji Ross is the President and Publisher of Regnery Publishing.