Like many people, I often remember the past as a better, more civil time. This is nonsense of course. Anyone who remembers the civil rights movement, Vietnam, or the women's movement knows that incredible incivility has thrived in the United States, in the past, and in the present.
Yet, I am put into this nostalgic frame of mind every time I read or listen to the many so-called pundits harbored today in our bookstores, newspapers, and on television. I am glad that they are referred to as pundits. They used to be called public intellectuals. Among these 20th century public intellectuals were people like G.K Chesterton (the "happiest" Christian), H.L. Mencken (the Sage of Baltimore), and Harry Golden (the Carolina Israelite).
Books by these writers are still avidly collected, retain their value, and continue to entertain, astonish, and delight the reader. Chesterton wrote, for example, "A preposition is an excellent thing to end a sentence with." From Harry Golden came the timeless pearl, "The only thing that can overcome hard luck is hard work." And ripped from today's headlines, but said by Russell Baker 30 years ago, "Is fuel efficiency what we really need most? I say what we need is a car that can be shot when it breaks down." Books written by these public intellectuals are worth owning.
Whether or not a reader agrees or disagrees with these writers, he invariably comes away from the page with something to think about, or argue about, or to discuss with a friend or acquaintance. Seldom does he come away feeling angry, mostly because these writers deal not merely in opinion, but in uncommon sense and Universal Truths, although often humorously. How can one be angry, at least for very long, at the truth?
I think the defining difference between public intellectuals and pundits is that the intellectual uses Truth to make a point regardless of where that Truth, however uncomfortable, might lead. The pundit appeals to prejudice and political or cultural correctness to make his case, and to the often irrational emotional needs of his audience to assure popularity. The Truth doesn't matter at all since he is preaching to the choir.
For a bookseller this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is finding a single organizing scheme that permits the bookseller to shelve complete morons cheek to jowl with moral and cultural heroes while not mortally offending the customer. I've met the challenge by inventing a category called "Public Intellectuals and Fools." Here, I shelve Molly Ivins, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Russell Kirk, Michael Moore, Robert Bork, H.L. Mencken, Jim Hightower, George Will, et al, all together and let the buyer decide who is the fool, and who the public intellectual.
The opportunity, as every bookseller knows, is that books written by pundits and fools excite the first reader and, maybe, a second or third, but after about 6 months from publication date, the value of these books is about equal to a short stack of recycling. Naturally, booksellers avoid buying many new copies of those books and rarely buy them used because they have the shelf-life of a tomato. On the other hand, books written by Chesterton, Golden, Mencken, and others like them continue to attract readers for months, decades, and even centuries. Those are the books and writers we like to buy, because they are good, and because we can sell them over and over again.