scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Alex Beam

What makes a real book vs. a ‘book’

Christopher Serra for the Boston Globe

A couple of years ago I was walking up Sixth Avenue in New York with my friend, the literary agent Michael Carlisle. Michael was ebullient; he had just sold a book about Miguel Cervantes to Bloomsbury, an excellent small press best known for discovering “Harry Potter.’’

“It’s a book book, it’s not a ‘book,’ ” Michael explained as we descended into the subway. “I represent books. There are enough ‘books’ in the world already.”

Around the same time, cartoonist Garry Trudeau embraced the book vs. “book” distinction in his “Doonesbury” strip. Jeff Redfern, a.k.a. the anti-Taliban fighter “Red Rascal,” had just received a seven-figure advance to tell the Rascal story, and his friends accused him of selling out. “It’s a book, not a ‘book,’” Redfern pointedly told his detractors.

A challenging distinction, to be sure. Celebrities, sports heroes, YouTube sensations, and feckless politicians generally create “books,’’ or have them created for them. Chumps like me — and Jeff Redfern! — write books. “I understand the distinction,” my friend, the writer Roger Lowenstein observed. “ ‘Books’ are the books that keep your books off the bestseller lists?”



This column is a handy field guide to differentiating these two species in the wild.

“Book”: Amy Poehler’s widely touted memoir-confessional “Yes Please,’’ in which the author confesses “that I had no business agreeing to write this book.” Globe reviewer Kara Baskin agrees: “Lots of this book feels like filler,” Baskin writes, citing the “pervasive sense that [Poehler] felt pressured into this gig.”

Dear Amy, here is our title for the inevitable sequel: “No Thank You.”

Book: “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” The acknowledgments are comical. It looks as though former Tufts professor Martin Sherwin lost control of his research and drafted author Kai Bird to put this book in order. The result is sublime, a portrait of a sensitive, polymath genius devoured by a ferocious new world, partly of his own making.

“Book”: Andrew Cuomo’s “All Things Possible,” a thinly disguised attempt to launch the Cuomo name into presidential orbit, yet again. Houston — I mean Albany — we have a problem. The New York Observer cited a “tidal wave of lousy Amazon reviews,” and The New York Times ungraciously reported that the book, for which HarperCollins paid $700,000, had sold 945 copies during its first week of sales. Shades of Deval Patrick’s notorious “book”-bomb, “A Reason to Believe.”


Book: “Isabella: The Warrior Queen” by Kirstin Downey. I’ve read only about half the book, and have marveled at the just-plain-folks nature of the Ferdinand and Isabella royal household. On their marriage day, “the couple were so poor they were compelled to borrow to meet the wedding expenses.”

Isabella hand-stitches all of Ferdinand’s shirts, which doesn’t prevent him from fathering numerous children with various mistresses. Downey credits the able and ambitious queen with creating the foundation for “the world’s first great truly global superpower.” And with Columbus, of course.

“Book”: Gabmeister Bill O’ Reilly and his tame historian Martin Dugard have outdone themselves with their latest mammoth bestseller, “Killing Patton.” In previous outings, e.g. “Killing Lincoln,” they’ve merely spun actual historians’ works through their typewriters to create by-the-numbers “history” for the Fox News crowd.

Now they’ve had to invent a story more or less out of whole cloth, because, inconveniently, General George Patton died in an auto accident. Or did he? O’Reilly and Dugard have tuned their historical antennae to a conspiracy freak-quency suggesting that the precursors of the CIA and the KGB collaborated on Patton’s murder in a German hospital after his staged auto mishap.


Don’t worry, it’s only a “book.”

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at