The title essay of George Saunders' non-fiction collection The Braindead Megaphone calmly and clearly rails against broadcast news' abject failure to keep the public properly informed. Much of what Saunders says—that news has become a business, and that in business, what sells trumps what's important—is fairly obvious, and has certainly been said before. But Saunders comes up with some colorful new metaphors to describe the danger in letting TV set the agenda for our national conversation, and he ends with a simple exhortation: "Every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance, every request for clarification of the vague, every poke at smug banality, every pen stroke in a document under revision is the antidote."
So consider Saunders' book one heavy dose of that antidote. Along with his essays on literature and politics, Saunders includes a handful of his satirical New Yorker "Shouts & Murmurs" pieces, all about the obfuscations of language in the popular media, as well as a handful of travelogues in which Saunders explores the intersection of nationalism and religious fervor in places like Dubai, Nepal, and the U.S./Mexico border. The connection between the humor pieces and the reportage might seem tenuous, but Saunders links them by detailing the gulf between opinions based on perception, and those based on first-hand experience. Saunders is as attentive to the Minutemen patrolling in Texas as he is to the immigrants hiding out in safehouses nearby, because while he knows what he believes, he strives not to be knee-jerk.
To that end, the book's key piece—besides "The Braindead Megaphone"—is Saunders' introduction to the Modern Library edition of Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. "The United States Of Huck" considers the history of Mark Twain's seminal novel and its after-effects, and serves as a handy analysis of what the modern novel is designed to do, as well as a defense of all of Huck Finn's failings, from its casual racism to its lazily populist ending. To Saunders, the mess Twain left behind is his real gift to American literature, because what defines America's personality better than its embrace of contradiction?