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Political Leanings

Two nights ago, I finished reading Baghdad Burning II: More Girl Blog From Iraq. I reviewed the first volume last year, and also conducted an e-mail interview of the author, Riverbend, so I was eager to find out what she has to say now.

(Because everything she writes is published first in her blog, theoretically I could have read it all long ago–but you know how it is, trying to keep up with reading a blog. I had checked in a half-dozen times, though, which gave me an interesting feeling of deja vu when I came across those posts again in the book.)

The short version is that things are not going well in Baghdad. But anyone not hiding in a cave or a secure, undisclosed location knows that.

Reviewing a book with a strong political viewpoint can be a bit tricky. If I were reviewing it for either Mother Jones or The American Conservative, I’d be free to pick it apart according to my own inclinations (which would have been carefully vetted in advance by the magazines’ editors). But I’m reviewing it for Booklist. So not only is my review a lot shorter, I have to play by a different set of rules.

Booklist reviews are about books, not politics. I’m giving my opinion on the book, not the issues. Our purpose in reviewing books is both to help librarians decide what to add to their collections and to help readers decide what to read next. And we operate on the simple assumption that they want to consider a range of viewpoints. If they don’t, that’s up to them, not us.

(Our columnists, by the way–Bill Ott and Will Manley for example–are free to express their opinions on just about anything. And boy, do they ever.)

So my job, no matter how much I laud or loathe a writer’s opinion, is to summarize the argument and judge how well that argument is made. I may not do it with a computer’s cold, clean logic, but I do my best. It’s impossible for any writer to remove his personality from the act of writing. And I know that my reviews of The Yes Men, The Corporation, and Baghdad Burning were very different from those that might have been written by the spokespeople for the WTO, Wal-Mart, or the White House.

But if I keep my focus on the book, and not on myself, I can’t go too far wrong. I’ve often discussed the basic aims of a Booklist review, and for a political book it’s not much different. What is the author trying to do? Does the author succeed? If I provide enough information about the book, it should be apparent to anyone whether they’d like it or not.

With the first Baghdad Burning, I was struck by the small, humanizing details of Riverbend’s life. In this volume, as the war drags on and life becomes even harder for her and her family, she becomes angrier, more of a polemicist. Those who oppose our invasion and occupation of Iraq will agree with much of what she says. Those who support our country’s actions will take issue with her.

But does that mean I can only recommend this book to antiwar liberals? I don’t think so. I think we shouldn’t limit our reading to writers we know we’ll agree with. When the issues involve human life, it’s even more urgent that we test our opinions. And so I think Baghdad Burning II should be required reading for every voting-age American citizen, whether they support the war in Iraq or not.

Because it’s not political to say that decisions about war shouldn’t be based only on numbers. Facts must be taken into account–and some might say that, in Iraq, they still haven’t been–but more than that, before making any decision to invade or fight or bomb, we need to consider the human factors. They’re harder to quantify and yet easier to understand. What if it was your family that lived without reliable running water? What if it was your sister who felt pressure to cover up in public because she didn’t want to risk being yelled at by strangers? What if you were in fear of your own country’s police?

Those are questions we should all ask ourselves.

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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