Defining the "op-ed book" (David Frum edition)

Imagine my surprise when, in a wee-hours bout of jet lag on the first evening back in Shanghai, I picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune. No, the surprise was not the radical shift in media experience: the previous morning, in Washington, I had waded through the thick heap of that one day's New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, feeling like an explorer cutting through the jungle with a machete. Now, I had one slim, precious little document in my hands, which I felt I had to guard carefully and every one of whose articles I intended to pore over.

Rather the surprise was what my poring-over revealed.

A review by Pamela Paul of a new book had this to say:

One suspects that like most campaign advertisements, this book is not meant to be read at all; it's an example of what James Fallows has called the "op-ed book": an argument, even a valuable one, that could do in 900 words what it does in 400 pages.

Thanks, Ms. Paul! (I'm not naming the book under review, although the info is obviously there in the link, because I like the author and am sorry to be used as a witness against him. For the record, I don't know Pamela Paul but liked her previous book, Pornified.) But, umm, what exactly is this "op-ed book" thing, again?

Oh, yes: Now I remember. It's a genre that, as I once argued in a piece about the conservative writer David Frum, is intended to be bought, talked about, and displayed on shelves -- but not actually to be read:

The most important trait of the op-ed book is that the heart of the normal book "experience"--namely, someone voluntarily spending hours reading what the author has created--is at best incidental to the op-ed book's success.

That was from an article in The Washington Monthly in 2000, about Frum's op-ed book on the 1970s. The assessment of the op-ed book has, I think, stood up over those years. The main thing that would have to be changed if the article were published again is updating Frum's ID: now he is best known, and I suspect always will be known, as the speechwriter who got the phrase "axis of evil" into George W. Bush's 2002 State of the Union Speech. (Or, as Timothy Noah has explained, based on Frum's later writings, Frum came up with the phrase "axis of hatred," which Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson, then converted to "axis of evil.")

Every author remembers every even marginally hostile thing written about himself or his work. That fact, plus my own half-forgetting of the Washington Monthly article, may explain a certain chill emanating from Frum when I was in a radio studio with him a few years ago.