Back when watching Bill O’Reilly was still fun — before he became a creepy, obsessive nativist — I enjoyed a feature called “The Most Ridiculous Item of the Day.” (He’s become such a sour, humorless ideologue that this segment now falls flat.) Allow me to steal the concept for a moment. Today’s most ridiculous item, hands-down, is the report that readers are suing James Frey — the author of the (partly) invented rehab memoir A Million Little Pieces — and his publisher, Random House, for “defrauding” them. Even sillier, Random House has reached a settlement with these whiny opportunists, and any reader who can show proof of purchase will receive a refund for the full retail price of the book ($23.95 for the hardcover, $14.95 for the paperback). The plaintiffs’ lawyers who scored this one must be laughing their heads off and planning their next Ibiza vacation.
Talk about “frivolous lawsuits.” Stunts like this give a bad name to class action suits that seek to redress genuine wrongs, like race or sex discrimination in the workplace, or pollution. The action against Random House also reflects an absurdly consumerist attitude toward reading: when the book — or author — isn’t what you expected, demand your money back! Bob Woodward presents himself as a crusading muckraker — can I get a refund for the book in which he acts as a mouthpiece for the Bush Administration? And how about all those novels and memoirs that are billed by publishers as “poignant” and “evocative” when they’re actually tedious tripe? Can we send in our receipts for those, too?
A book is usually a layered, ambivalent and highly subjective experience; it’s not like an iPod or a car, which either works or doesn’t. Some disappointment — even rage — is inevitable in a well-read life. Serious, mature readers embrace and engage such reactions; they don’t seek to punish anyone for them. Book buyers of America, get a grip.