Who actually reads political memoirs?

Reports have emerged that the bidding war for the rights to publish memoirs by both Barack and Michelle Obama have reached the stratospheric level of $65 million for the two-book contract. While this is particularly high, book publishers seem to be willing to shell out big bucks advances for books written (usually ghost written) by prominent politicians. This raises once again in my mind a question that I had been idly pondering for a long while, and that is who actually reads such books? After all, the publishers are obviously hoping to recover the costs in sales. At (say) a discounted price of $10 per book, we are talking about millions of books sold.

I have never had the slightest inclination to read a political memoir. Maybe because it is my cynicism in that I think that such books are self-serving, seeking to buff up the writer’s own image while throwing in some gossip and a few soft barbs at political opponents to spice up interest and attract buyers. I do not waste my time and money on such fluff.

Laura Miller suggests that these books are bought for many reasons, but to be read is not one of the main ones, and that whether they are any good or not may be immaterial.

These books sell, very well, a curious truth when you consider how low they rank as sources among the very people, historians and journalists, charged with writing definitive accounts of the inner workings of presidential administrations; experts rarely cite them. The assumption is that presidential autobiographies will be circumspect and neutered, containing little that’s new, candid, or interesting.

Presidential memoirs are given as Christmas and Father’s Day gifts, purchased and left on side tables as emblems of their owners’ political sentiments and otherwise acquired by people with no great desire to explore their contents. Often as not, they represent a vote of support, a badge of affiliation, a souvenir. They are the tony equivalent of a commemorative plate. Actually reading them seems beside the point.

These books are also often bought in bulk by political partisan groups and handed out to their members as gifts and at conferences and the like.


  1. anat says

    My parents definitely had quite a collection of books by local politicians and generals. Off the top of my head I remember Ezer Weizman’s memoir from his time as Air Force chief, Rabin’s memoir that was published when he lost the 1977 election, Begin’s ‘The Revolt’. More recently they have Joseph Lapid’s book (ghost written by his son, Yair). I’m pretty sure my father read those books. I came into political awareness in 1977 and read large chunks of some of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *