This is a slightly edited repost from my previous blog, Electricaching.
Recently I was listening to the CD audiobook Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and (in really small print) Martin Dugard. It was read by Bill O’Reilly. I gave up on it after one disc, disgusted not at the content but at O’Reilly’s reading of it. Let me tell you why.
Let me first say the book seemed pretty interesting and it may be a good read. I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading it. At least I don’t think I do. For those not familiar with it, it’s a non-fiction New York Times best seller and the subject matter is exactly what you would expect from the title: the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. For those unfamiliar with Bill O’Reilly, as I was until I just now looked him up in Wikipedia, he’s a television personality on Fox News and according to that source is considered conservative. I consider myself pretty conservative although I do not belong to any political party and don’t watch Fox News. O’Reilly’s politics play no part in my opinion of the book or his reading of it, but I now would place no reliance on anything he says, political or otherwise. I got disgusted at the book by O’Reilly’s abysmal reading. The reason I am blogging about this now is because I want people to realize that their misuse of words is not just an unimportant personal style to which only picky people pay any attention. Maybe I am picky because I’m an author, too (see the link to my mystery books above). So be it. My geocaching friends all know me by my alter ego of The Word Police, but for you guys it is just occasional good-natured ribbing; I hold professional book readers, and especially authors, to a higher standard. When people speak and write incorrectly, there is a part of the world, like employers, judges, Word Police, and even potential spouses or significant others, who recognize that the speakers don’t know what they’re talking about and, consciously or not, place them in a lower category, that of someone second-rate.
There are two main problems with O’Reilly’s reading. First is the style he uses, which he characterizes in the prologue as that of a “thriller.” I can accept that to a certain extent. I always hated history as a school subject and found it very dull and dry. There is no reason it shouldn’t be made more exciting and interesting. That, however, brings to mind the other problem I always had with history: its lack of objectivity. Even the driest, dullest historians suffer from the inability to see historical events from all sides, in my experience. They see things through the filter of a moral or or political lens, a viewpoint, usually rather nationalistic in nature if not outright jingoistic. Wars and politics especially are characterized as between heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. When trying to make a story exciting, there is an even greater tendency to do this. One is tempted to exaggerate here, or drop that inconvenient fact over there to juice up the story and keep the drama going. Movies about historical events, for example, tend to be appallingly far from accurate. So when O’Reilly told the listener not to let the thriller style diminish faith in the factual rigor of the content, I was a bit skeptical.
The second problem came when he came to the word cavalry. He pronounced it Calvary every time, and it was used a lot in describing the final battles of the Civil War. I’ve heard other people mix up the two words, and for them I don’t consider it a big deal. I’ve never corrected anybody on it before so far as I know, and I probably made that mistake myself sometimes — up to maybe 6th or 7th grade anyway. But this book is about cavalry battles, among other things, and purports to be a serious non-fiction work based on solid research. It became clear after about the twentieth time he said it wrong that he was not just a dyslexic misreading it; he really didn’t know the difference between the two words. More importantly, O’Reilly claimed to be a former history teacher and he attended not one but two church-affiliated universities (Marist and Boston U.) He has a Master’s from Harvard, too! How anyone who attended two Christian schools and has a Harvard master’s degree can fail to know these words is beyond me. How many of his former students now think that Calvary means mounted troops? His Sunday school or catechism teachers must be cringing in embarrassment about now. For the record, Calvary is the hill upon which Jesus Christ is reported to have been crucified. It is capitalized as a proper noun. The word cavalry refers to the fast-moving mounted military forces of the time. In the Civil War they were mounted on horses, hence the word cavalry, which comes from the French cheval or Spanish caballo, meaning horse. Just think ‘gay caballero’ if you have trouble remembering it (although O’Reilly probably wouldn’t approve of the term if his politics are as described in Wikipedia.) In later years it referred to motorized forces, especially tanks. This does go to show that fancy degrees mean very little as to intelligence or learning.
If there were other mistakes in grammar or usage, they were minor enough for me to ignore or forget. I haven’t read the print copy of the book, but I may do so. Perhaps in the book it is spelled correctly as cavalry. (If so, how can one see that word and pronounce it Calvary? Beats me.) Perhaps the style of writing does not come off as quite so much like an action comic when not read by O’Reilly. Perhaps Dugard actually did the research and it is rigorous and accurate while O’Reilly was merely roped in to put on the cover and read it because of the name recognition. But for me, O’Reilly now is permanently categorized as ignorant, stupid, and an unreliable source about anything. People who embrace his politics, self-styled conservatives, I suppose, would be well-served to patronize other more articulate pundits – someone like the late William F. Buckley, Jr., say. This is about more than just this book or a single word being mispronounced. It is about how to persuade, or how to avoid casting doubt on your own views, credibility, or product. O’Reilly’s yellow-journalistic style combined with obvious ignorance of the subject matter leaves me dubious of everything he represents. Choose your spokesperson with care.