This “essay”: on Eric Rauchway’s _Banana Republican_ by Ben East is rather dim-witted. Not because it displays no evidence whatsoever of actually having read the book under discussion (instead being a review essay based on a couple of sentences in someone other’s review), although it does not. Nor because it makes a sweeping judgment that “critics” (the plural is a stretch, since the only critic mentioned is Joe Queenan of the New York Times) have dismissed the book as not well written (as it happens, Queenan’s “issue”: is that the writing is _too_ good to plausibly reflect the thought processes of Tom Buchanan). Nor yet because elevates a purely personal crochet into a universal aesthetic principle, although it does that too. It’s because it completely misses the point.

bq. Without believable characters, novels are nothing. So it isn’t particularly surprising that sometimes, authors take the somewhat safer option. They “borrow” characters from other writers’ works – the more famous, the better – and place them in their own books. … So why do authors continue to use well-known characters? Is it a self-imposed challenge to carry on somebody else’s iconic work, or just an easy way to make a quick buck? … Banana Republican, gives Tom Buchanan – the racist, snobbish, despicable excuse for a human being in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – a second chance. … The New York Times called it a gimmick: “It’s as if Rauchway wrote a generic farce about a long-forgotten revolution and then decided the book might get more attention if he recast the narrator as a refugee from The Great Gatsby,” wrote Joe Queenan. … Perhaps, I suggest, the difficulty is that readers often feel authors are writing with somebody else’s characters because they know they have a ready-made audience. That, well, they’re being just a little lazy and unimaginative. … “

There’s a very obvious reason why Rauchway has “borrowed” the character of Tom Buchanan. He’s riffing on a famous “borrowing” that sought to do for nineteenth century British imperialism what Rauchway wants to do for the early twentieth century version – the exploits of “Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC”: Flashman was, of course, the bully who gets sent down from Rugby in Thomas Hughes’ _Tom Brown’s Schooldays._ McDonald Fraser appropriates this character from a novel that is in every way inferior to his own books, problematic though they are in some ways, and transforms him from a thick-headed boor into an intelligent, charming, selfish and completely cowardly representative of the British upper classes. Queenan notes the broad resemblance between _Banana Republican_ and the Flashman novels, but seems completely ignorant of the fact that Flashman is himself a borrowing from another novel, suggesting that he needs to pay a little more attention to the stuff that he’s reading. That East elevates this misreading into a fundamental principle of aesthetics (that those who use other’s characters in their own novels are lazy, unimaginative, and timorous and that their novels, with a tiny list of exceptions are failures), suggests that his problem is rather more fundamental. Indeed, if one wanted to apply adjectives to a critic who doesn’t seem to have actually _read_ the book he’s trying to take down (East makes _no_ independent judgments of the book in the course of the review-essay), lazy, unimaginative and timorous might be excellent ones to start out with. Matt Yglesias wrote somewhere that _the National_ pays remarkably well for book reviews. If I were them, I’d be asking for their money back.

[updated to clarify argument]

Education Next is celebrating its tenth birthday with a poll to uncover which are the most important education books of the decade. The short list of 40 titles is curious (and what is curiouser, given EN’s political leanings, is that Linda Darling-Hammond’s and Diane Ravitch’s books are currently way ahead of the pack). Several, but I’ll only single out Karen Chenoweth’s It’s Being Done, and Jay Mathews’ Work Hard, Be Nice, really have no business on any such list at all. Others (like David Cohen and Susan Moffitt’s outstanding book The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools?) belong but are not being voted for, presumably because they are too new to have actually been read by the readership, whereas others still (like Goldin and Katz’s equally brilliant The Race between Education and Technology) are faring badly because they do not have a colon in the title. (So, go vote for them, now, they’re both great).

The striking thing is that several key books, some of which must be contenders, are missing. Regular readers will be able to guess the three absentees which top my list, and which would have competed only with The Ordeal of Equality for my permitted three votes if they’d been there. But to ensure there’s no mystery, here they are:

1. Richard Rothstein, Class And Schools: Using Social, Economic, And Educational Reform To Close The Black-white Achievement Gap must have outsold all but two or three of the books on the list, and has more google scholar citations than any of the ten books on the short list that I looked up (it’s discussed here (which should explain why It’s Being Done doesn’t belong on the list) and here)

2. Again Richard Rothstein, this time with Tamara Wilder and Rebecca Jacobson, Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (discussed here)

Ravitch’s likely winning entry draws on very heavily on both of the above books, so, really, they must be important if hers is.

3. CT favourite, Annette Lareau, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (discussed here and lauded here).

Perhaps it was the curse of a positive Brighouse mention on CT that sunk them (but then why is The Global Achievement Gap on the list?). Feel free to recommend other absentees from the list in comments.