There is a very short shelf of indelibly great works of American narrative nonfiction. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night reside there. So do Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and J. Anthony Lukas's Common Ground.
There was a time, not long ago, when the dominant arbiters of public opinion relegated Al Sharpton to the outskirts of serious, respectable discussion. Sure, he was a fixture on the Ebony magazine list of the 100 “top” black Americans. Sure, journalists called him when they needed a provocative quip. Sure, Democratic Party politicians courted him. But “the Rev” was unmistakably relegated to the black ghetto of celebrity activism. No one thought to ask his opinion regarding issues other than those perceived as directly pertinent to aggrieved blacks.
Our political debates, our public discourse—on current economic and domestic issues—too often bear little or no relation to the actual problems the United States faces. What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion, but the practical management of a modern economy.
It's a rare musician who requires a biography devoted solely to his or her political activities. But as Barry Seldes shows in Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of an American Musician, Bernstein is one of those exceptional cases. For his entire adult life, Bernstein was perhaps the most famous composer and conductor in America--which is not the same thing as being the best--and he had no qualms about using his artistic fame to advance his political beliefs.
I am one of those who believes that Tom Wolfe is among the most penetrating and understandably literate social observers and social commentators of the age. Actually, you have to go back to Thorstein Veblen to read someone so evocative of the realities--sometimes grim, sometimes silly--amidst which we live. And as for a readability comparison you may have to go back to the English novelists of the nineteenth century. It's not only The Bonfire of the Vanities, which, in its day, touched on matters that were taboo, is correct society.