In my first run through the presidents, I struggled though a few poorly written books. As I saw it, I had no choice; I had set a goal and I was determined to meet it. Now that I've met it and I can read more widely, I need to remind myself that I have the freedom to skip books I find lacking. In fact, given the sheer volume of what I plan to read, I need to let them go.
As of this writing, I have 115 presidential books I have yet to read in my bookcases. That's not including the half dozen or so I have on pre-order. As it stands, I know that I will never read everything I want to in my life. There are too many books and nowhere near enough time. But I also know that I will only read books to completion that are worth my time. With all of this still to read, I simply have to make decisions like I did recently when I set aside Craig Shirley's Reagan Rising.
So what makes a book worth reading? I can make it through a book that is dry, but filled with important information I feel like I should know. I can also make it through a book that is retelling well-known stories if it does so in an engaging, exciting way. What I can't live with, however, is poor writing. Perhaps it's my years as a writing teacher, but when a book feels lacking in this area, I have to set it aside.
There are three main issues I have with Shirley's writing: unsupported claims, contradictions, and bad organization of ideas. I'll walk through some examples in the hope of making this clear.
Shirley makes opposition to Washington norms central to his praise of Reagan. While I don't find this surprising or bothersome, what I can't live with is the lack of support he gives to his claims. He writes, "The crass and arrogant ways of the city by the reeking Potomac River were grating on the American people, as was the growing concentration of power and corruption." He goes on to mention a "former member of Congress for nearly twenty years [who] fled as he was filled with revulsion over what he saw there." This is strong language and engaging imagery. But what it is not, however, is a convincing argument. Shirley doesn't offer any evidence to show how or why power and corruption grew. Nor does he show what this member of Congress saw that revolted him so much that he felt he needed to quit his job. Perhaps he assumes his readers will hold these views already and not need evidence, but I expect more when I read.
Another way I found this book lacking was Shirley's tendency to contradict himself. In framing Reagan's greatness in these years, he frequently positions him against his rival, Gerald Ford. In doing so, he states that Reagan disliked Ford and "many thought rightfully so. After all, just weeks earlier, Ford had run commercials calling Reagan a warmonger." Despite this casting of Ford as the villain, he later speaks of him respectfully during the transition from Ford to Carter. "Ford was intent on leaving with the same dignity and style with which he'd entered the White House...he brought his personal decency to the office." It's hard to understand how, in Shirley's telling, Ford can be deservedly disliked and a decent man at the same time. More importantly, he doesn't bother to explain this contradiction.
My final issue has to do with the generally poor organization of ideas and their presentation. While attempting to provide cultural context, Shirley talks about the success of Star Wars only to create a jarringly abrupt shift. "The movie was a welcome diversion for Americans in light of the continuing sad saga of the once-mighty domestic automobile industry. Cars coming out of Detroit were awful, and the Ford Motor Company had to recall cars made since 1974 because it had forgotten to put adequate holes for lubrication; thus the engines tended to explode, especially in the record heat of the summer of 1977. Also, across the baked country, problems with water supplies and energy demands rippled for several months." And that's where the section ends. He simply moves on from this disjointed paragraph. No transitions. No explanation of their relevance. Just left as is.
Taken together, these issues pushed me to make the decision to let go. I say these things with all due respect, but this is simply a poorly written book by my standards. And with all that I have waiting for me in my library, I don't have the time to spend on books that are this lacking.