The Age of American Unreason

Susan Jacoby romps gloriously over 300 pages in an effort to preach to the converted; anyone reading this book surely is part of the small minority of Americans who are readers and who loathe the current of anti-intellectualism that continues to wash over the country. She begins by citing grim stats about the lack of reading from a 2002 NEA survey: less than half of Americans read any work of fiction in preceding year, 57% read a nonfiction book. This is blamed mostly on the proliferation of infotainment – TV, DVDs, internet, with particular harm coming to infants getting any screen time at all under the age of two, all causing decreased attention spans. She compares how politicians address us now (just us “folks”) compared to mid-twentieth century where FDR asked people to pull out maps to follow along his WW2 fireside chat and RFK’s quoting Agamemnon at the beginning of a campaign speech immediately after MLK’s assassination. Bill Moyers (on whose program I discovered Jacoby) is quoted, “One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seats of power in the Oval Office and in Congress.”
Early chapters explore the forces that shaped American exceptionalism, from the founding fathers through Ralph Waldo Emerson’s times through the intellectuals rallying around socialism in the early twentieth century. Then we come to the 1960s, where religious fundamentalism gets a boost as it envelops everyone turned off by the hedonism of that era, people seeking stability and balance. The sixties is also the era when the cultural elite failed us, by allowing the “ghettoization” of content that feminists and civil rights activists wanted included in the core curriculum. Instead, these got added to the side, as an à la carte option that those so inclined could snack on, but not making mandatory for everyone. This in turn leads to a greater lament about the quality of what is being taught in colleges (where after the Virginia Tech massacre we learn that the class was “studying” the movie Friday the 13th and keeping “fear journals”). Jacoby gives us some hope: “High culture can never be obliterated as long as the species continues to produce extraordinary individuals with the inclination and fortitude to pursue their interests and talents against the grain of the mass culture surrounding them.” The election of Nixon in 1968 sums up the era perfectly, his persona the counterpoint to everything that was swirling around that decade. Jacoby finishes off the 1960s with: “In politics, education, and above all religion, both the left-and the right-wing children of the sixties were leaving what would prove to be a lasting anti-intellectual imprint on the culture… The real importance of the sixties in American intellectual history is that they marked the beginning of the eclipse of the print culture by the culture of video… The fusion of video, the culture of celebrity, and the marketing of youth is the real anti-intellectual legacy of the sixties.”
This leads us into a dissection of youth and celebrity culture, crowning television as the main stimulus for those social forces. She calls out feminism in particular, how Steinem chosen as the icon because “living refutation of the negative stereotype” while anti-feminists focused on Dworkin, characterized unfairly by Jacoby as “a fat, unkempt woman considered by some to be a brilliant and original thinker but utterly lacking in conventional feminine attractiveness.” Alongside these factors, we cannot ignore the rise of fundamentalism in religion. She cites a 2003 Economist survey: “Europeans consider religion… the strangest and most disturbing feature of American exceptionalism. They worry that fundamentalists are hijacking the country. They find it extraordinary that three times as many Americans believe in the virgin birth as in evolution.”
My favorite chapter by far was The Culture of Distraction. Talking about print vs. screen: “The willed attention demanded by print is the antithesis of the reflexive distraction encouraged by infotainment media…” The more time people are entranced by screens, they less time they have for “two human activities critical to a fruitful and demanding intellectual life: reading and conversation.” Jacoby takes apart Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You, when Johnson says “As long as reading books remains part of our cultural diet, as long as the new popular forms continue to offer their own cognitive rewards, we’re not likely to descend into a culture of mental atrophy anytime soon.” Jacoby retorts: “The sorrow, the pity, and the unanswerability of this argument is embodied in the phrase ‘cognitive rewards.’… Riding a bicycle, milking a cow, and reading a book require the services of different, as well as some of the same, neurons, but only reading is indispensable to intellectual life.” Later: “It makes as little sense to suggest that there is no reason to fear for civilization as long as reading remains a part of our cultural diet as it would to assert that there is no reason to fear for children’s physical fitness as long as exercise remains a part of their lives. A part can be huge, or it can be so small that it dwindles into insignificance.”
I’m taken to task for my own lazy book reviews when I read Jacoby’s scathing “many book review blogs are little more than the aggrieved ramblings of would-be writers…” But I’m not really hurt by this–I keep this blog going as an extension of my memory, to remind myself of what I’ve read and with no intention of courting readers. It’s simply a book vomitorium.
I’m always interested in trying to differentiate the reading we do online vs. with print books, and Jacoby does a nice job here:

However, reading in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet. What we are engaged in–like birds of prey looking for their next meal– is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information. I almost never stop to think for any length of time about whatever I read online, however intrinsically interesting or well written the material may be, because my primary aim is to save time–not to lose my sense of time as I do when I read a compelling book in its old-fashioned form.

Jacoby cites John Updike’s 2006 speech to the American Booksellers Association (more preaching to the choir, but great stuff):

The printed, bound and paid-for book was–still is, for the moment–more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both. It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness. Book readers and writers are approaching the condition of holdouts, surly hermits who refuse to come out and play in the electronic sunshine of the post-Guttenberg village.

Still in The Culture of Distraction chapter, she moves on from reading to tackle the loss of conversation, the heart of all intellectual and emotional life. “Personal social contact, outside as well as inside the family, is another casualty in the culture of distraction.” Everyone reports having fewer friends and people to discuss important matters with than twenty years ago. So what’s causing this decline? More time working, hectic schedules leave less time to cultivate friendships. But the big one is the isolating effect of technology. Headphones on, eyes glued to screens. We have a proliferation of conversation avoidance devices. Jacoby notes the eerie silence in a college dorm she spent the night in, contrasting it with the late-night/all-night rap sessions she experienced, having no doubt that the presence of a writer in the 1960s would have attracted some students for intense discussion but that today’s isolated and over-stimulated world leaves no room for spontaneous conversation.
More on the conversation topic, Jacoby bemoans the disappearance of letters, talking about a recent experience where she re-read some letters between her then-fiance and herself, vivid snapshots of traumatic events in the late 60s. “I have no idea how biographers will go about reconstructing the lives of people born after, roughly, 1950, in the absence of a paper trail of personal correspondence that used to be conducted not only by intellectuals but by large numbers of literate men and women… Future historians will look in vain for the kinds of letters that passed between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson…” Emails are completely distinct, brevity encouraged uber alles, haste & inattentiveness and lack of pleasure that physical mail brings.