The words on the book cover are in bold, italics or all-caps, meant to seduce shoppers: With a New Afterword. A New Preface by the Author. With a New Epilogue.
Perhaps some people succumb. I didn’t get that book when it first came out, and this cheaper paperback still doesn’t seem — wait, what’s that? A new preface in which the author reflects on the impact of the book!? (Whips out credit card.)
Such readers — if they exist — are in for $16.99 worth of disappointment. The new afterword is the taxi-cab air freshener of book publishing. Seeking to make works feel current, these new sections often come across as generic, predictable and self-serving. I doubt readers spend much time on them, let alone enjoy them. But because book critics rarely review paperbacks, authors and publishers get away with the stench.
Drawing mainly from the Washington Post and New York Times lists of notable books from 2012 and 2013, I culled recent nonfiction works that are out in paperback with these new contributions from the authors. Turns out there is a formula for that afterword scent:
I was right + my critics were wrong + the response was overwhelming + I gained perspective + more stuff happened = new afterword
I was right.
What’s the point of a new afterword that doesn’t declare your book’s arguments vindicated? In 2013 Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote “Foreign Policy Begins at Home,” arguing that America has overreached militarily and underperformed economically. “Now, a year later,” Haass writes in the new 2014 foreword, “both the assessments and the recommendations in the book appear largely valid.” Congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein make the same point in the 2013 edition of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” a dissection of Washington polarization originally published in 2012. “The year that has passed since the book first appeared has done nothing to make us question our analysis of the causes of America’s dysfunctional politics,” they write.
Some writers point to readers for affirmation. Economist Joseph Stiglitz does it in the 2014 preface to “The Price of Inequality,” first published in 2012. “As I traveled around the world and as reviews of the book came in over the last year,” he writes, “I was heartened at how little challenge there was to the book’s central theses.” New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich, author of “This Town,” a 2013 recitation of Washington insecurities and back-scratching, is more subtle. “What shocked me was that no one bothered to come to the defense of the world I had described,” he writes in his 2014 afterword, “or disputed that it existed to this embarrassing degree.”
No one can dispute the embarrassing degree to which authors enjoy ratifying their beliefs.
My critics were wrong.
Authors of new forewords don’t so much engage critics as dismiss them. In their book, Mann and Ornstein blame the Republican Party for Washington’s political gridlock and then discount GOP complaints. “To be sure, a number of critical op-eds, reviews, and blogs were penned by Republicans and appeared in mostly conservative outlets,” they write in the preface to their 2013 paperback. “But these were drowned out by favorable commentary in the press and blogosphere.”
Journalist David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene,” knocks one of his critics for being more worried about the “social message” Epstein sends when acknowledging genetically based athletic talent than about honestly exploring the relevant science. That reaction “may be well intentioned,” Epstein writes, “but it is misleading at best and harmful at worst.” And Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economics professor at Columbia University, dismisses pushback in his new preface by saying that “as usual, academics quibble.” (“Quibble” is a glorious verb to belittle counter-arguments.)
The misguided critic is an indispensable character in the new afterword. With so much insta-heckling on television and Twitter, books are the final outposts of blissful, uninterrupted point-making.
The response was overwhelming.
“ ‘The Sports Gene’ reached a broader audience than I ever considered possible,” Epstein writes in the afterword to his 2014 paperback edition, noting that “President Obama was photographed picking up a copy on Small Business Saturday.” In their preface, Mann and Ornstein say that their book not only “touched a nerve” but also “stirred a hornet’s nest” (and they even thanked me for excerpting their book with a “provocative headline” when I was the Post’s Outlook editor). Stiglitz begins his preface stating that “it was clear from the reception of ‘The Price of Inequality’ that it had hit a chord.” And Leibovich, unique among afterworders, details not just the reaction to his book but the anticipation, too. Politico’s pre-publication obsession with “This Town” is chronicled in his paperback edition, along with the “fresh round of hysteria” once the book went on sale.
Nerves and nests, presidents and Politico — so many ways to bask in the reaction to your book.
Philip Shenon, author of the 2013 history of the Warren Commission, “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” offers a worthwhile story of reader reaction — by focusing his 2015 afterword on one reader. He tells of David Slawson, who as a young commission staffer investigated the possibility of foreign conspiracies in President John Kennedy’s assassination. After cooperating with Shenon and reading his book, Slawson has come to suspect that the commission’s investigation was sabotaged, that the CIA doctored evidence and that Robert Kennedy hid information for fear that investigators might learn of U.S. efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro. “I know I did the best I could,” Slawson, now in his 80s, told Shenon. “I had no way of knowing what I wasn’t being told.”
Shenon shows that, in afterwords as in books, specificity always beats generality.
I’ve gained perspective.
“One of the revelations I have had in talking about ‘This Town’ has been that much of my cynicism about life in Washington comes from a place of idealism,” Leibovich writes at the end of his afterword. “Cynicism is idealism turned inside out. It stems from an expectation unrealized and a promise perverted. That is so much of Washington today in a nutshell. I want the capital to do better. It should do better. The country deserves better.” It’s a good thing this realization hit Leibovich after he wrote the book, not before, because that is the least Leibovichian paragraph you’ll ever read, mixing cliches with politician-speak.
The conversion moment is a staple of the new afterword. Stiglitz experiences it, too. In “The Price of Inequality,” he argued that reducing inequality was in the self-interest of the rich, but in the new preface he cites Cornel West’s response that moral arguments are more important. “What West was hinting at, I think, is that the real solution to the inequality crisis lies in focusing on community rather than simply self-interest,” Stiglitz writes. “And I agree.”
More stuff has happened.
The best additions to books are the ones that do less gazing at navels and more reporting of new, relevant material.
In the 2014 paperback of “The Roberts Court,” Marcia Coyle adds a final chapter on the Supreme Court’s involvement in America’s culture wars. A writer for National Law Journal, Coyle focused the original 2013 book on campaign finance, affirmative action, gun rights and health care. The new edition gave her a chance to report on the high court’s grappling with “gut issues about equality rising from the nature and definition of marriage and racial discrimination in voting,” she explains. Coyle expands on her book’s fine reporting without going out of her way to tell us how fine it was.
Similarly, Bob Woodward, who published “The Price of Politics” shortly before the 2012 election, adds a 35-page afterword detailing the post-election budget negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner as the fiscal cliff and sequestration loomed. The addition, which was excerpted in The Post’s Outlook section, is less an afterword than a continuation of the book. Coyle and Woodward offer two of the stronger afterwords in recent years — mainly by rejecting the form.
So, if new afterwords generally don’t add much value, why bother? The books that have them are usually well-regarded; shouldn’t they stand on their own? “It’s a marketing tool to have this on the cover,” explains Lara Heimert, publisher of Basic Books. “Saying this is a ‘new and updated edition’ makes it seem fresher.”
Yet it’s hard to come up with something fresh, to be reflective rather than defensive, so soon after you’ve had your say. It takes time for authors to develop the distance needed to reevaluate their ideas. In the meantime, the new afterword is the most self-indulgent and redundant part of any good book, revealing little beyond the author’s confirmation bias.
Time helps, though. For the 20th-anniversary edition of “The Feminine Mystique” in 1983, Betty Friedan wrote a splendid foreword — simply titled “Twenty Years After” — mainly because two decades had allowed her to understand the book’s impact and the challenges awaiting the “post-feminist generation.” And National Journal’s John Judis recently wrote that the progressive forces he had identified in “The Emerging Democratic Majority,” coauthored with Ruy Teixeira in 2002, were being “severely undermined.” It just took him 13 years to get there.
“Some of the really best, revised and updated books are the ones where the author has come to reassess aspects of the argument,” Heimert says. “That’s stuff you can only say when you’ve seen something play out over 10 years.” In the first paperback, she admits, the author might still be “a little bit obsessed with that initial reception.”
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