Washington Post’s ghostly top 50 list

It’s that time of year when media outlets put out their best of the year lists. I know we’re all waiting with baited breath for the news about who is Time‘s Person Of The Year (come on, Mars Rover! You can do it!).

The outcome of these lists might be boring. But they do tell us quite a bit about the culture of a given media outlet. Which is why I found John Wilson’s comments about a recent end-of-year list so interesting.

Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a wonderful bimonthly review that engages the contemporary world from a Christian perspective. He had some interesting insights about the Washington Post‘s Best of 2012: 50 notable works of nonfiction list. Here are the first few books on the list, in alphabetical order:

500 DAYS: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars By Kurt Eichenwald (Touchstone)

An anecdote-rich, page-turning account of President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, with almost all of his actions traced back to decisions made during the first 500 days after Sept. 11, 2001. — Dina Temple-Raston

ALL THE MISSING SOULS: A Personal History of the War Crimes Tribunals By David Scheffer (Princeton)

Written by the Clinton administration’s point man on international justice, the book describes the U.S. role in trying to make accountability for mass atrocities a central principle in international affairs. — Anthony Dworkin

AMERICA’S GREAT DEBATE: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union By Fergus M. Bordewich (Simon & Schuster)

This stylish history recounts the Compromise of 1850, which managed to hold the expanding nation together. Bordewich breathes new life into figures who were giants in their day. — Donald E. Graham

AMERICA’S UNWRITTEN CONSTITUTION: The Precedents and Principles We Live By By Akhil Reed Amar (Basic)

This is a masterful, readable book that constitutes one of the best, most creative treatments of the U.S. Constitution in decades. — Ken Gormley

AUTUMN IN THE HEAVENLY KINGDOM: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War By Stephen R. Platt (Knopf)

Platt’s fresh and important argument refutes the traditional idea that China was unchangeable and not a significant factor in the world’s history in the 19th century. — John Pomfret

THE BOY KINGS OF TEXAS: A Memoir By Domingo Martinez (Lyons)

Recounting the author’s tough upbringing in Brownsville, Tex., this finalist for the National Book Award joins a rich body of Mexican American coming-of-age narratives. — Valerie Sayers

Notice anything thus far Wilson wrote (on Twitter):

In WaPo’s Best 50 works of nonfiction in 2012, 14 titles (by my quick count) deal with war, including 7 on war on terror.

There are also several others closely related (e.g., on Pakistan, on Saudi Arabia), and another 9 or 10 on politics.

This list represents a suffocatingly truncated view of “nonfiction” in 2012–or any other year.

No book on the WaPo list–this will shock you–centers directly on religion, though it plays a part in a book on the Taiping rebellion, …

…and on the side in a couple of others. One book of 50–by E.O. Wilson–is from science. (WaPo hates science?)

The list includes some mighty fine books and I have my own ideas about some that had no business being included or no business being excluded, but I think Wilson’s point is worth ruminating on.

If you wonder why some media outlets view everything through the prism of politics, it might just reflect their own provincial culture. Perhaps it’s to be expected of some media outlets, but it’s just a good reminder to keep in mind when evaluating overall media coverage and the world it conveys to readers.


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