Saturday, October 30, 2010
THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON by Susan Jacoby
Jacoby's Age of American Unreason impresses me less than her earlier Freethinkers, and it probably has less to teach its readers. Although I found myself agreeing with Jacoby most of the time, the book was--for me, anyway--a tedious and surprisingly unenlightening read. Yes, Americans are woefully ignorant of the world around them (including their own country). Yes, the internet has immeasurably increased the reach of junk thought and junk 'science.' Yes, people are reading fewer serious novels and spending more time in front of TV and computer screens than in decades past. And yes, this last development surely will alter, in some unquantifiable, immeasurable manner, the way we think and understand and interpret our lives and world. Yes, yes, yes... I knew all of that before I read Jacoby's book, so I guess I'm pretty far from being this work's ideal reader. But who exactly was this book written for? (Or phrased another way: Why was it written? Why is it justified to kill a tree for this book? [This is a not unreasonable question. Maybe we should ask it of all books.]) Will anyone who doesn't already basically agree with Jacoby take the time to read it? Isn't this book ultimately an extended sermon to the choir--and thus yet another artifact of the culture of atomization and overspecialization it indicts? As I turned the last page, I concluded that this is a lesser work than Freethinkers because it seeks to confirm rather than upset its readers' assumptions. (The section on middlebrow culture might be an exception to this blanket characterization, but that chapter is retrospective. Middlebrow is no longer a 'gateway drug' to high culture. What passes for middlebrow today is the Middle Mind so ably skewered by Curtis White a few years back, a cheap, jejune substitute for high culture.) I come away from Age nodding my head in agreement--and wishing I had spent the last few days reading something else. This book merely confirms my cultural pessimism without either deepening or challenging it.