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21 June 2023

The rise of Waterstones Dad

How the self-made man got lost in the marketplace of ideas.

By Gavin Jacobson

He was born between 1956 and 1978. If not already retired, he earns around £90,000 or more working in media, advertising, the arts or in the upper layers of public sector bureaucracy. He voted for Tony Blair in 1997, David Cameron in the elections of 2010 and 2015 and the Liberal Democrats in 2017. His daughters wanted him to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in 2019 but he won’t reveal who he voted for in that one. He preferred Boris as mayor of London rather than prime minister just as he preferred Top Gear to The Grand Tour. A patriotic Remainer who is anti-racist but uncomfortable with movements such as Black Lives Matter and calls to “abolish the police”, he will vote for Keir Starmer in 2024. His favourite “lefties” are John Harris and James O’Brien. He still gets a lot of his news from Newsnight (though misses Jeremy Paxman), reads the Times (though misses Philip Collins) and is gutted that David Aaronovitch, his favourite columnist, has been defenestrated. But the presence of cognoscenti princeling James Marriott reassures him that he’ll still get his fix of arch cleverness – Victoriana, book and podcast recommendations – from the paper of record. He buys the FT Weekend and thinks it has excellent arts coverage. He subscribes to Private Eye.

He also reads books. Not all books – mostly non-fiction books. And not all types of non-fiction: an order of non-fiction that boasts epic chronology (Origin Story), stately titles (The Bomber Mafia), grand theses (The Making of the Western Mind), prophecies (End Times) and neologisms (Easternisation). It is a world-view straight from the stacks of blurb-decorated hardbacks at the entrance to high-street bookshops, where tables groan under the weight of acceptable thought by a media-sanctioned intelligentsia. He likes “smart” people but confuses successful for smart. He takes Peter Frankopan’s The Earth Transformed on his family holiday to the south of France, but reads only a few chapters. This is Waterstones Dad.

HG Wells’s The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man (1920), which starts with the existence of the sun and ends with humanity’s predicted colonisation of the stars, can plausibly be identified as the ur-text of the dizzying meta-takes that excite Waterstone Dads. Wells was writing at a time of great flux and confusion, when the world appeared ever more sinister and people looked to the deep past to make sense of the present and possible future of humanity. Today’s reader reaches for similar non-fiction as a kind of ballast – texts forged around high-concept ideas, promising both revelation and resolution. They might have the theoretical clout of dandelions (think Niall Ferguson’s The Square and the Tower) but this hardly matters to Waterstones Dad, whose empiricism is deeply ingrained. As with Britain’s intellectual-in-chief Stephen Fry, it’s all about the facts. On the assumptions of homo liberalicus – the uplifting powers of globalisation, the inherent fairness of the market, the normalcy of injustice – such books implicitly sanction the ruling economic and social order by refusing to challenge it. They sometimes reaffirm the creed of progress, that history tends towards improvement and convergence on the Anglo-American model of liberal democracy.

In Britain, the balance of affection leans towards historians rather than economists, sociologists or philosophers, so Waterstones Dad mostly reads history. He enjoys the gold-standard military history of Antony Beevor, in which war is emptied of all complicating issues of power and ideology. Inspired by his favourite film Master and Commander, Waterstones Dad forgoes the fictional canon upon which the film is based and makes straight for Roy Adkins on Trafalgar. He also enjoys reading (non-threatening) accounts of the British empire, such as the more forgiving work of Lawrence James, rather than the revisionist histories of Kojo Koram or Caroline Elkins. British history is prime terra cognita, but it is largely the feel-good work of Simon Schama and Dominic Sandbrook rather than the more ominous vibes of Tom Nairn. Adam Tooze’s Crashed, a rare work of economic history that Waterstones Dad owns, is visible on the bookshelf but remains unopened. But that hardly matters since knowledge and ownership are roughly synonymous. He has read (slowly) Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers, a history of the First World War, but is perhaps less interested in foreign revolutions and so may think twice before reading his new book about the uprisings of 1848.

Exasperated at the political state of the country, for which he mostly blames Brexit, Boris Johnson and Corbyn, he yearns for that prelapsarian time before 2016 when Britain stood as an archetype of steady bourgeois moderation. But he can no longer stomach the miasmic torpor of the edifice and its revolving cast of morticians in parliament. Ian Dunt, the poor man’s poor man’s Orwell, provided some catharsis with his post-Brexit vade mecum What the Hell Happens Now? The mounting volumes of centrist freakout, most of which are extended Twitter threads with ISBN numbers – Politics: A Survivor’s Guide; But What Can I Do? Why Politics Has Gone Wrong, and How You Can Help Fix It; Why Governments Get It Wrong; Why We Get the Wrong Politicians; How to Be Right in a World Gone Wrong; How Did We Get into This Mess?; How Westminster Works… and Why It Doesn’t; Start Again: How We Can Fix Our Broken Politics; Why Politics Fails – both confirm and feed his minatory finger-wagging.

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These books also keep Waterstones Dad reassuringly in the dark, as they seldom challenge (or even mention) the material foundations – capitalism – upon which his comfort rests: rising house prices, stock market booms, asset bubbles, bailouts, quantitative easing, steady work in the core and exploited labour on the peripheries of society, and the plunder of the world’s resources. They locate the pathologies of the nation’s discontents in the juvenile quality of the ministerial class, the sclerotic condition of the political parties or in the political system itself – in the problems of populist energy and deadlocked parliaments. There’s no need to contemplate radical alternatives to the rentier economy, to do more than soften the status quo through a bit more tax and a little bit more state, to aspire for a national culture beyond stinginess sweetened by nostalgia, when all we must do is sit down (in a podcast studio, perhaps) and just learn How to Disagree agreeably.

[See also: Why libraries matter for Britain]

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Waterstones Dad’s curiosity about the world encompasses the US, some of Europe, Russia (west of the Urals), and the Middle East (not Palestine). He started but did not finish Gideon Rachman’s The Age of the Strongmen. China isn’t a country so much as a collection of concepts and portmanteaus – “Chimerica”, “Thucydides Trap” – or whatever the neo-Clausewitzian Henry Kissinger says it is. Reading Max Hastings’ The Korean War is at once an admission of curiosity, ignorance and laziness – Waterstones Dad will never have to read another book about the Korean War again, but he can recount an authoritative version of it if called upon. Family members know what they’re giving him for Christmas or Father’s Day whenever Tim Marshall drops another mother lode of geopolitical wisdom.

When Waterstones Dad leaves the battlefield, or Silk Road, he heads for the Ted Talk Agoras where Big Names sell Big Thoughts in the Marketplace of Ideas. The work of credentialled magnifcoes like optimist-in-chief Steven Pinker, weepy self-help coach Alain de Botton, cringe-king sophist Malcolm Gladwell, and fortune cookie writer Yuval Noah Harari amounts to a lucrative canon of concentrated tedium. As the American writer Noah Kulwin wrote about Gladwell:

[His] decades-long shtick has been to launder contrarian thought and corporate banalities through his positions as a staff writer at the New Yorker and author at Little, Brown and Company. These institutions’ disciplining effect on Gladwell’s prose, getting his rambling mind to conform to clipped sentences and staccato revelations, has belied his sly maliciousness and explosive vacuity.

For Waterstones Dad, Orwellian restraint is just common sense: the measure of both good literary style and intellectual credibility. Abstraction, eccentricity, or indulgence in the excesses of language represent an obnoxious riot of elite pretentiousness. His pretention is about feeling that he is in command of globe-spanning facts, which must be delivered to preserve the self-assured clarity of his thought-world, which even a stray adjective might compromise. He might read a biography of John Maynard Keynes but would howl against the economist’s view that “words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking”.

He has looked at but is not on Twitter, so Waterstones Dad doesn’t know about the old meme imploring people to “read some fucking Orwell”, but quotes from Animal Farm and 1984 are locked and loaded at dinner for whenever the discussion turns to Brexit, the Tory civil wars or the Wokerati.

In the more advanced reaches of the Dadosphere, it is to Orwell (not Churchill) that he often pays intellectual tribute, unaware, perhaps, of Isaac Deutscher’s damning critique of this “fear-ridden and restricted imagination”. Not that this will halt the Orwell industry from producing volume after volume on Orwell’s “new life” (same as the old life) or disquisitions about why he is “a man of our time”.

The proliferation of Dad non-fiction corresponds to the general evacuation of ideas from the public sphere. But the literary offerings he is served reflect the tendency within mainstream publishing to fumble in the dark, desperately trying to alight upon the next big book with the master theory that will settle the problems of politics and society without even brushing the ideas, myths and institutions behind the reign of capital. Books by holy messengers like Pinker and Rutger Bregman dress Gladwellian banalities in breathless revelation – everything is getting better; we’re all quite nice. Daniel Chandler’s Free and Equal, which sees our political salvation in the work of the 20th-century philosopher John Rawls – the liberal King of Kings – stretches Waterstones Dad’s patience. Lacking the time to explore subjects in depth and acquire the skill to distinguish dross from the good stuff, Waterstones Dad is a victim of the publishing industry, and the way it presents the work of people like Harari & Co in the same rhapsodic tones as it does the work of scholars such as Tooze and Clark.

If, in the mid-1990s, Mondeo Man was aspirational, upwardly mobile and optimistic about the future, Waterstones Dad is the self-made man undone. He is more despondent, politically confused, curious yet overwhelmed by choice, drained by hopes raised and dashed, but lashed to the mast of a career, a good house, and the comforts of family life. Like the tortured suburban souls in Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes, “[he] has, in some minor way, ‘made it.’ And it all means nothing.” For Waterstones Dad, mainstream non-fiction becomes a kind of anaesthetic toy or convenient diversion from an unfamiliar world. Mandated by Waterstones, he sweats and strives to “think smarter, not harder”. And then turns to James O’Brien’s How to Be Right for guidance.

[Read next: I am Waterstones Dad]

This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars