Mark Leibovich's This Town is the sort of book that attracts more attention before its publication than after. The idea of a tell-all about the back-scratching, self-obsessed behavior of Washington insiders, written by no less an expert than the New York Times Washington, DC, correspondent, sounds pretty salacious. But while This Town begins promisingly enough, with a prologue set at Tim Russert's funeral that indignantly gapes at all the politicians and commentators who are using the occasion of a beloved journalist's death to preen and be seen, it soon fades into monotony.
Here's what we learn in This Town: Politicians are vain. Journalists are lazy and will publish whatever you want, as long as you give them access. The relationship between lobbyists and politicians is uncomfortably close. Retired politicians get big paydays from industries they favored while in office. Everyone sucks up to those in power, then stabs those same people in the back the moment a weakness becomes visible.
Leibovich is an excellent writer, but there's little here that qualifies as news. Occasionally, a sarcastic observation will demonstrate the absurdity of the life of a Washington reporter, but the book winds up feeling too middle-of-the-road. While Leibovich scorches a few acres of ground, This Town still eventually feels like a backhanded love letter to the culture he's unveiling. A book like this should either be ripe with the acrid stench of gossip, like Halperin and Heilemann's Game Change and Dan Balz's Collision 2012, or it should be a progressive call to arms, with suggestions about how to change the harmful culture of vanity and pettiness.
Blogger Choire Sicha (you probably know his name from Gawker, back when it was cool, or from his site, the Awl) dissects the culture of a very different East Coast city to much greater success in his new book, Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City. His target is New York in the throes of the Great Recession, with the very poor bearing the brunt of decisions taken by the very wealthy. Sicha's book wins the reader's affection through a ludicrous—and highly effective—gimmick. It's written as though it's being told in the distant future, when the specificity of our everyday world has faded and our customs appear quaint to future generations...