Pros: An easy-to-read piece on a serious issue by a noted cultural figure
Cons: Fumbling prose, overly short for the complex issues involved
To say that the remaining members of Nirvana went in divergent directions after Kurt Cobain's suicide would be putting it lightly. Drummer Dave Grohl went on shortly to found the Foo Fighters and pick up where grunge had left off. Bassist Krist Novoselic, by contrast, tinkered with a few new musical projects but mostly fell off the radar, heard from occasionally in political circles but rarely in the music community. Now, Novoselic has resurfaced with Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy, a short book advocating U.s. election reform.
Novoselic's book is a five-chapter, 100-page light read that makes a quick, punchy case against America's antiquated democratic technologies, from the two-party system to winner-take-all elections to the redistricting circus. The book does an adequate job of promoting its thesis, held back only mildly by its Cliffs-Notes approach and Novoselic's slightly fumbling prose.
Novoselic's first chapter is a brief autobiography, discussing the roots of the grunge scene and his experiences during Nirvana's rise and demise. He stays away from scandalous disclosures, focusing instead on telling his own story. He segues easily from there to his second chapter, which tells of the interplay between his early musical experiences and forays into the political arena. There are tales of Nirvana taking up social causes that many may never have heard about, which are likely to increase the listener's respect for the band.
The real meat of Novoselic's effort, though, comes in the final three chapters, where he takes up the mantle of electoral reform. Chapter 3, "Flip-Flop Patriots," lays out many of the problems with American elections, from the "wasted vote syndrome" to the limitless problems with the partisan redistricting process. Novoselic raises these problems fairly thoroughly, rattling them off in short sections and showing how they connect to one another. In many ways, this is a very short, readable version of Steven Hill's Fixing Elections -- and indeed, Novoselic cites Hill's work later, and the book cites Hill's Center for Voting and Democracy as a source at its closing.
In Chapters 4 and 5, Novoselic takes these messy problems and begins to lay out a set of solutions, ranging from Instant Runoff Voting to Multi-Member Districts to non-partisan redistricting boards. Novoselic shows insight by acknowledging that many voters would naturally fear these seemingly major changes, and laying out good sets of numbers and clear arguments in their support. Snapping through these arguments and proposals quickly, most readers will nonetheless find them extremely persuasive and begin wondering if their current democracy truly represents their viewpoints.
At the end of the day, it's refreshing to see a known figure of pop culture take up a meaningful (if less than sexy) issue like true electoral reform. Novoselic dashes off his problems and solutions quickly, and that virtue is also his principal failing. With issues that are frequently very complex, Novoselic frequently finds himself glossing over opposing viewpoints and shortening explanations a bit too much -- this enhances readability greatly but has a limiting effect on the trustworthiness of the book.
Limiting readability is Novoselic's prose itself -- while the book is eminently easy to follow, it's also hindered by Novoselic's obvious timidity as an author. The book is dominated by sentences so maddeningly short that, at its worst, it reads a bit like a poorly edited high school paper. Novoselic could have framed the exact same thoughts in the exact same length but increased his sentence complexity and vocabulary for a much-improved final product.
But when all is said and done, quibbles about prose and depth make only a minor dent in what Novoselic has done, which is to step back, take a clear-eyed look at American elections and make a meaningful set of proposals for change. And as a big positive, Novoselic's pre-loaded name recognition will draw readers who ordinarily would not be caught dead with a lengthy tome on American election reform. As such, the book may come with its caveats, but it's a recommended read on a meaty topic.