In my column on Zeit Online, the online version of the prestigious newsweekly Die Zeit, I like to provoke my readers by writing about why Americans love guns, about why woman's liberation could not have happened without the Barbie doll, why it's high time Europeans apologize for slavery, and about how Europe is becoming a superpower like the USA.
|Americans dream of success, Germans dream of the apocalypse.|
Zeit Online, May 22, 2013
What does Frank Schirrmacher have that Malcolm Gladwell doesn't?
A friend of mine is a well-known German writer of murder mysteries always on the prowl for a good idea for his next book. I was privileged to watch him idea-hunting one day as we sat together in a café in Berlin. It was the beginning of the euro crisis, and the papers were full of apocalyptic tirades against bad banks. That gave him the idea: "This time I'm going to go after the banks," he said. "Everyone hates them, they're greedy, unscrupulous, powerful and evil. They're taking our savings and our tax money and stabbing us in the backs, the time is ripe: They're the perfect bad guy. Readers will love this."
As chance would have it, a copy of Der Spiegel lay on the next table. He pointed to it and said, "Just take a look at the bestseller list, it's probably already full of books about banks. They're selling like cold beer at the beach."
We took a look. In the fiction section, the bestsellers were all about love, relationships and the murderers of children; on the non-fiction side, it was all love, relationships, happiness and the pope.
I happen to be a longtime fan of the bestseller lists. And sure, I've seen a few books appear there bashing banks or preaching the evils of capitalism, but to be honest, they are few and far between. At the beginning of the euro crisis, the newspapers were full of articles about the evils of capitalism. For a while there, hardly a day went by when some major intellectual didn't predict the end of capitalism within weeks.
But there's a difference between the superficial chatter of newspapers and worries and fears that go deep.
When the Germans took to the streets in masses demonstrating against the war in Iraq or against nuclear power following the earthquake in Fukushima, those were real worries. But bad banks? Sure, every once in a while a punk will throw a brick through a bank window, maybe, but that's the kind of things punks do anyway. The Occupy Movement generated a lot of sympathy among TV watchers and newspaper readers, but not many people actually went out and joined them. The Germans love complaining about the evils of capitalism in a bar over a glass of beer, but they know which side of their bread is buttered on. No one is out there shutting their bank accounts.
Very few people are interested enough in the subject to open a 500-page book and read about it. A newspaper article, that's okay. But a book is something else. That's what makes the bestseller lists such a good barometer for what people are thinking about.
The New York Times bestseller list, for example, is full of surprises.
Six of the Top 25 titles are about controversial historical presidents, from Thomas Jefferson (Humanist, slave owner, racist) to Calvin Coolidge (Calvin Coolidge? I'm not even sure I know who that guy was. How did he get onto the list?), or are written by living politicians like Al Gore. Others are indirectly political: the economic downfall of Detroit or the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Americans and politics. Who would have thought? Americans have the reputation of being superficial and apolitical, but nowadays America is doing a lot of thinking about politics. It's asking itself: Who are we? What can our past say about our future? These are the kind of questions you bring up when you feel the times changing around you and you need to get a foothold in. That's what's happening in America today.
The Germans, on the other hand, have the reputation of being very political, always. When we Americans gather in bars, we talk about sports and celebrities. Germans talk about politics. They know their party leaders like we know baseball players. Yet, you could only call five titles on the Top 20 list "political." Even then, you have to count in Peter Scholl-Latour's summary of the situation in the Middle East and Claus Kleber's book about climate change. Only two books - one about former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and another about the controversial Berlin ghetto Neukölln - really deal with politics in Germany.
That's a pretty good mirror of reality: The euro crisis is loud and big, but for most Germans it's still somewhere else.
That's what makes the Number 1 non-fiction title so interesting: "Ego" by Frank Schirrmacher.
That man is a true genius of the non-fiction bestseller. He knows what the Germans really worry about, even in times of plenty: an undefinable sense of impending doom. His bestseller "The Methuselah Complex" gave new life to the age-old German fear of dying out as a people; "Payback", about the dangers of the digital age, works on the same fears about the future that in the US gave birth make to science fiction in the fifties.
There's plenty of criticism of capitalism and banks in it, but Schirrmacher doesn't stop there. Instead of dwelling long on a boring analysis of the financial world, he strides straight to the larger theory that mankind's soul has become irrevocably corrupted, that we have been pushed out of the Garden of Eden forever and are living pointless zombie lives - zombies with credit cards. The seed to our destruction is greed, and that seed was planted mainly by the allied powers after the war, which rebuilt Germany with the sole purpose of making it into a machine of consumption and capitalism - implying that Germans before the war were idealistic, selfless half-gods unconcerned with money and living with whole, natural human lives. His subject is nothing less than the moral downfall of the Germans, yeah, of all mankind.
You gotta admire the guy.
The bizarre and bizarrely popular German literary genre "the End of the World as We Know It" (he's not the only one to make it big in the genre) gives the reader the adrenalin kick of feeling completely helpless in the face of coming doom; the ultimate catharsis in the knowledge that now, finally, everything is irrevocably kaput. Germans gobble it up.
We Americans love apocalypses in the movies, but we tend to find nonfiction books that describe the end of the world - or of civilization, or of our souls - vaguely unbelievable. Maybe I'm too American, but I find it hard to take end-of-days-scenarios serious for longer than five pages - unless there are aliens and robots involved, of course.
It's not that we Americans don't have populist writers who know how to manipulate readers. Of course we do: They're just populist in a different way. Our Frank Schirrmacher - the one populist writer who can reliably deliver a nonfiction bestseller every one or two years - is Malcolm Gladwell. But he has a much different definition of "populism".
Gladwell's books like "Tipping Point", "Blink!" or "Outliers" all describe one thing: success. And not just success: big success.
His new book, which will appear in autumn, is entitled "David and Goliath" and is based in part on an article of the same name in The New Yorker about a small basketball team that no one believed in, but which learned to win by using a trick. It, like all his books, is full of sociological studies and experts, but the message remains simple: Underdogs can also win.
That's what Americans want to read about: success. That's what made writers like Dale Carnegie and books like "The Secret" major bestsellers: We want to read about, learn about, inhale success. That's what Gladwell understands. Whether you approach the subject from a "how-to"-angle like Norman Vincent Peale or pretend to be a dispassionate, analytical observer like Gladwell, if you can write well about success, you will have a bestseller in America, just as you will have one in Germany if you can write well about the end of the world.
In English we call it "pushing buttons": Every people has certain buttons to get them going. The buttons "Fear of the apocalypse" and "Lust for success" couldn't be more different, but the reaction is the same: In the midst of prosperity, the Germans dream of destruction; in the midst of crisis, Americans dream of success.
Original text online here.
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