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Daum: Judging a book, and its author

It's not easy being a book consumer these days. For starters, books seem so long — at least compared to the blog posts and online news items that have recalibrated the pace of the average American attention span.

And that's not the half of it. Some books will kill your dreams. Worse, they'll build up your dreams and then knock them down without so much as a refund or a credit for a Frappuccino at Barnes & Noble. When that happens, the only choice is to sue.

At least that seems to be the logic of Rob Stutzman and Jonathan Wheeler, two California men so aggrieved by Lance Armstrong's recent doping admissions that they have become the named plaintiffs in a class-action complaint against Armstrong and his publishers over his memoirs "It's Not About the Bike" and "Every Second Counts."

Wheeler, an amateur cyclist and chef, and Stutzman, the former communications director for Arnold Schwarzenegger when he served as California governor (you read that right), claim they purchased Armstrong's books based on the assumption that his story of beating metastatic cancer and cleanly achieving a once-unimaginable seven Tour de France victories was true. Now however, they feel "duped," "cheated" and "betrayed."

Armstrong is not the first author to be sued by readers for presenting fiction as truth. In 2011, Greg Mortenson was sued for fudging facts and rearranging timelines in his bestselling books "Three Cups of Tea" and "Stones Into Schools," including a tale of having been kidnapped by the Taliban after a harrowing mountaineering expedition in Pakistan. Despite a precedent set in 2006, when James Frey, the discredited memoirist behind "A Million Little Pieces," and his publisher agreed to pay a large sum to satisfy defrauded readers, a federal judge dismissed the suit against Mortenson, calling the claims "flimsy" and "speculative."

It remains to be seen how the Armstrong suit will shake out. As with Mortenson, his readers are irked not just by his lies but by the way the lies were parlayed into a cult of hero worship (Mortenson's philanthropic work on behalf of education in Central Asia scored him lucrative speaking engagements until he was found to have misspent large sums of his charity's money).

And although Armstrong's sins are past the flimsy and speculative stage, it's difficult to imagine a judge giving much credence to a lawsuit that includes statements such as "although Stutzman does not buy or read many books, he found Armstrong's book incredibly compelling and recommended the book to several friends."

Reports about the lawsuit have made repeated use of the word "inspiring" when talking about the plaintiffs' case, the implication being that they have suffered from the loss not just of a sports hero but their own personal motivator. The root of this grievance apparently isn't so much that Armstrong lied and cheated but that his story as the ultimate survivor and champion can no longer be categorized as inspirational.

Really? Unless you had the specific goal of beating cancer, then winning the Tour de France seven times without drugs (even when all or most of your competitors were using them), it's hard to see how anyone could make the case that Armstrong's admissions materially upended their life trajectory. Armstrong (further) damaged his sport; he let down — all right, made fools of — his fans. But if you saw his books as cloud-parting, life-changing scripture, aren't you the one who's liable?

Maybe that's too harsh. In a book-buying culture that favors self-help and "business philosophy" titles over all else, maybe the only real measure of a book's worth is its to-do list. After all, acquiring a life coach and a recipe for success would make up for having to process all those words.

Suing when the recipe fails seems a bit extreme, and who knows if that's really what motivated Stutzman and Wheeler. Maybe they're angry for other reasons, maybe they're naturally litigious, or maybe they're just bored.

In any case, it seems all too clear that their ultimate gripe is with something even larger than the mythos of Lance Armstrong. Whatever it may be, it's not about books.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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