President Trump has said he doesn’t read a lot, if at all. And prefers to rely on his “common sense.” But could Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” a blistering account of the first year of the Trump administration, be enough to get the president — and the rest of America — to turn off their TVs and open a book?
The intense level of interest from the public and media alike pushed publisher Harry Holt & Co. to move up the book’s publication date to Jan. 5 from Jan. 9. The book was reportedly sold out in bookstores across both red and blue states — from Washington to Austin. It was No. 1 on Amazon AMZN, +1.62% on Saturday, just 24 hours after its release.
Among the numerous salacious allegations, many of which are attributed to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Wolff writes that President Trump did not expect or even want to win the presidency in November 2016, and writes that Melania Trump was in “tears.” Trump tweeted that the book was “full of lies” and, on Saturday morning, tweeted he was a “very stable genius.”
….to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 6, 2018
Americans could do with reading more. In a study released in 2015, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Americans just 24 out of 72 countries in student performance in reading. Literacy skills are linked to personal and social well-being. “In the United States, the odds of being in poor health are four times greater for low-skilled adults than for those with the highest proficiency,” the OECD said.
The number of adults who read at least one novel, play or poem within a 12-month period fell to 43% in 2015 from 50% in 2008 and 57% in 1982, according to a 2016 survey of over 37,000 Americans by the National Endowment for the Arts, a government agency that promotes artistic excellence. Fiction reading rose from 2002 to 2008, but has been dropping ever since — and currently hovers around 2002 levels.
Literary reading varied widely from state to state. It was highest in Vermont (63%), followed by Oregon (59.5%), Hawaii (5.93%) and Colorado (59%) — all states that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election — far above the national average. But literary reading was among the lowest in Florida (30.5%), West Virginia (34.1%) and Mississippi (21.7%), all states that voted for Trump. Nevada, a blue state, scored 30.2%.
There are encouraging signs that people are at least buying more books, even if literary reading has declined. NPD BookScan, which tracks up to 85% of print sales, last week reported that 687.2 million total units sold last year, up nearly 2% from 674.1 million the year before. No single book sold more than 1 million copies. “The Getaway,” which is part of Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid series, was the bestselling new book, selling over 992,000 copies.
Will “Fire and Fury” do for adults what “Harry Potter” did for children 20 years ago? “It’s unlikely to change American habits or literacy levels, but it shifts the national conversations away from tweets and towards a book,” said Aram Sinnreich, professor of communications at the American University, Washington. “It’s less about what people are doing with their time and more about what do we think (is) the basis for shared reality and an agreed upon fact.”
“Fire and Fury” has all the early signs of becoming a publishing sensation, experts say. Although Trump has dismissed the book, large chunks of conversations were reportedly taped and Michael Wolff claims that he conducted 200 interviews with senior staff, including Trump himself. Wolff extensively quoted Bannon, who Trump has subsequently labeled “Sloppy Steve” on Twitter TWTR, +1.38%
Here we go. You can buy it (and read it) tomorrow. Thank you, Mr. President.
— Michael Wolff (@MichaelWolffNYC) January 4, 2018
Sinnreich said extensively sourced pieces of journalism are a welcome departure from the concept of “alternative facts,” a phrase used by Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway last year. “A book can substantiate its claims, list sources and make nuanced arguments,” Sinnreich said. “The more we talk about books, the more those forms of persuasion get to play a role in the political conversation. As an author and avid reader, I’m all for that.”
Another possible explanation for the slump in reading: Narcissism. Americans may be more fascinated with their own lives than with those featured in great works of literary fiction: Some 56% of Internet users have searched for themselves online, such as by typing their own name into Google, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank based in Washington.
In an era of social networking, it’s also harder to bond around the water cooler over a novel. Thousands of works of fiction are published every year, according to New York-based author Christopher Sorrentino, but only a few hundred come to the attention of a discerning reading public through reviews or celebrity endorsements. These days, many people get their fictional narratives from cable television, he said.
That includes, by his own account, the president.