America, the serious

Until we get the stats on Bill Clinton's sales, "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" is currently the bestselling nonfiction book in America. How could a country of rough and rugged individuals be so smitten with a snarky English grammar book? I barely know how to punctuate my surprise. Sure, our copy editor loved it, and I thought it was great fun, but we're chronically unhip, the kind of people who get a kick out of jokes involving the confusion of transitive and intransitive verbs.

And now, Oprah has gone and made "Anna Karenina" a bestseller, too. Like the talk-show goddess, I've never read Tolstoy's masterpiece, but at least I know enough to keep that shameful secret to myself.

What does the future hold for our liberal elite if ordinary Americans start curling up with witty grammar books and classic Russian novels? It was only a year ago, after all, that people wanted to watch bikini-clad models eat bugs on TV. Back in those glory days, being a snob was special - it had some panache - but now it's all so cheap and common.

Next thing you know, we'll see teens in low-riding jeans swaying to the sounds of Philip Glass on the subway. Children will share secrets in Latin rather than Pig Latin. Truckers will replace their naked-lady mudflaps with figures from Botticelli paintings.

No wonder John Kerry is using words like "thrice" and making quips in French on the campaign trail. A nation that's weeping over Russian tragedy and worrying about split infinitives wants a president who can fight terrorism and revive the economy without dangling participles.

And don't discount President Bush in this regard. Grammarians are still snickering over his lowbrow tastes and tortured syntax, but it turns out that those stories may have been spun by his own campaign. In 1998, the average American wanted a president who ate buffalo wings and wondered, "Is our children learning?"

But in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine, James Fallows studies a videotape of Mr. Bush from back in 1994. There, he discovers a man whose speech is "eloquent," "complicated," and "fluid." Clearly, this is a candidate with his finger on the pulse of American culture.

The big revelation of the 2004 election campaign may not be when Mr. Bush first read the Abu Ghraib memo, but when he first read "Anna Karenina" - and what he thought of it.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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