Piecework

The State of the Unions

by Paul Jacobs
Atheneum, 303 pp., $5.00

On page 5 of The State of The Unions James Hoffa is described as “ninth vicepresident” of the Teamsters’ Union and its “most dynamic force.” On page 20 he is described as “ninth vice-president” of the Teamsters’ Union and its “most dynamic figure.” On page 147 we are given a one-paragraph definition of “Bogus” (a cant word in the printing trades), and on page 199 we are given approximately the same one-paragraph definition of the same word. On page 99 we are told that Harry Bridges “has tolerated an all-white longshore local in Portland,” and on page 288 we are told that even in Bridges’ “‘progressive’ union there is at least one local that excludes Negroes.” (Despite the fact that we are told this twice, incidentally, it is no longer so.) On page 182 we are told that braceros are “Mexicans legally brought into the United States first during the Second World War to meet the shortage of domestic labor,” and on page 193 we are told that braceros are “Mexican contract laborers brought north under Public Law 78 for the harvesting season.”

We are, in short, in the domain of the New York Times, which day in and day out relentlessly re-identifies everyone and everything, presumably for the benefit of those suddenly become literate since the events of the previous day. Or in that of the New Yorker profile, the sacred institution devoted to telling us everything about a noteworthy human being except what a serious biographer would tell us, and generally in serialized form, repeating certain characterizing labels from week to week for the benefit of the impulse buyer rather than the subscriber.

But the goal of journalism is not the goal of book publishing. If I take advantage of this volume to remind both Mr. Jacobs and his publishers of what should be tiresomely obvious, it is because we are entitled to expect more from both. What they have seen fit to give us is another example of the unbook, that device increasingly resorted to by reputable publishers to present us with the pasted-together magazine pieces of journalists, educators, diplomats, and others whom we respect for their intellect or accomplishments, but who seem increasingly unwilling or unable to apply themselves to the task of writing three hundred-odd consecutive pages even on the subject of their special competence.

There are at least two good reasons why it is time to blow the whistle on this practice. As a publishing gimmick, it misleads the hopeful reader and lets the serious writer off too easily from a responsibility that he ought to confront. Why bother to sit and think if you can get out a book with a tube of glue and a fistful of acknowledgements? And it is difficult if not impossible to come to terms with the argument of a writer who is encouraged not only to be repetitive but to dilute substance with ephemera.

In his Preface, Mr. Jacobs advances four reasons for devoting approximately a fourth …

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