‘Hardcore History’, the Podcast, Becomes a Book That is Actually a Podcast
Last year, desperate for money as usual, I had the unusual and lucrative opportunity to pitch myself as the ghost-writer of a book by the dog of a famous TV host. This dog has apparently built up quite a following on Instagram, creating high public demand for his thoughts and observations on city life. I wrote a few sample entries. A few weeks later, the members of the TV host’s “team” told me the voice wasn’t quite right, and I didn’t get the gig. They were clearly afraid of my ideas. And like everything else in Hollywood, it was a mirage.
I realized there were at least two people out there with the daily job of receiving pitches from a dog’s ghost-writer. And it also occurred to me that the vast majority of what publishers produce as “books” are actually extensions of some media brand or another. That’s what pays the bills for debut story collections and mid-tier YA novels.
Even books that seem like actual books are actually a sales pitch for another media empire. I was extremely disappointed, after reading 248 pages of Dan Carlin’s The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments From The Bronze Age Collapse To Nuclear Near Misses when he credited his “co-writer Elizabeth Stein,” who otherwise goes uncredited. She turned, Carlin said, “working with an impossible person and impossible material into something possible.” Carlin has hosted the Hardcore History podcast since 2005, when podcasting was almost impossible. His episodes often run more than three hours. They’re discursive epics that bring history to life with sweeping drama. He certainly presents himself as a public intellectual, and he should probably be able to produce a book.
Carlin is about something other than book publishing. He’s a brand who has been touring around a World War I virtual-reality experience. The podcast has millions of downloads. He doesn’t need books. And, frankly, The End Is Always Near shows that. Like in the podcast, Carlin (and his co-writer) have loaded this book-product full of interesting tidbits. But what works in a podcast, which is best half-listened-to while floating through traffic or chores, doesn’t always apply in book form.
The End Is Always Near posits that human civilization always either seems to be near extinction or actually more or less goes extinct from time to time. Carlin “writes” about the fall of the Assyrian Empire, the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Black Plague. But it takes a while getting there. The second chapter of the book is about the history of parenting, and it just kind of hangs there, as though Mel Brooks decided to feature Dr. Spock at the beginning of History Of The World Part I. The back third of the book is all about nuclear brinksmanship, which is interesting enough. But it all kind of reads like he was narrating this to his co-writer while doing errands or between podcast tapings. It’s 60,000 words of “hey, here’s a cool idea!”
If you’re a fan of Hardcore History, you might like The End Is Always Near. As a podcast, it works, alongside other conversational knowledge-based casts like Stuff You Should Know, Ken Jennings’ and John Roderick’s “The Omnibus,” and My Favorite Murder. You will learn some things about the Barbarians, the Sumerians, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a book, though, it feels like a bill of goods to get you to download the other media.
In the recent past, or even present, popular historians like Barbara Tuchman or Robert Caro have used narrative techniques to relate the absurd sweep of history. But they rigorously sourced their work. Sarah Vowell has turned into a popular historian of sorts, but she’s absolutely a writer first, with an extremely idiosyncratic voice and point of view. She would never dream of employing a ghost. The End Is Always Near, on the other hand, veers awfully close to “what if Hitler had never been born?” territory. It’s not really history. It’s more like historical fan nonfiction.
I don’t know if Dan Carlin’s dog is on Instagram. But I think a book of dogs dressed in funny historical costumes would sell really well. He’s already got a ghost-writer. It would be very on-brand.
(Harper, October 29, 2019)