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Awful

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I am having one of those days when I can’t seem to settle down and focus on anything.  I don’t have them very often, but when I do I get really annoyed, and I’m really annoyed now, and it’s only nine in the morning.

Part of it is the result of something really odd.

I have had, in this house and in others, a trade paperback copy of a book called The Image by Daniel Boorstin.

I don’t remember buying this book, and I have no idea how I came to have it.

It is, though, one of a small group of books I not only never lose, but never lose sight of.  It always seems to be right in front of my face.

Other books like this include Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, which I bought in its original paperback edition when I was in high school, and which has followed me across oceans and continents without my ever intending it to.

I do remember how I got the Sontag book, however, and I’ve read it.  In a way, it’s comforting to have around, because it brings me back to my 16 year old self and that total desperation to understand what all this stuff was about.

That was the same era in which I read Sartre and Camus and tried to convince myself I was just too stupid to get it, because Sartre couldn’t really be this big of a fathead.

Sartre wrote a play about segretation in the American South.  It really has to be read to be believed.  On the other hand, that’s a few hours of your life you’ll never get back if you do.

The Boorstin is around the way the Sontag is–it’s not only hear, but right where I can see it, all the time.

And although I don’t remember how I got it, I do know why I haven’t, until now, read it.

The copy I own is a trade paperback with a greyish and pastel cover that just looks–fuzzy.  And amorphous. 

I’m not terribly susceptible to covers, but this one has always just put me off.   I could never get over the impression that this book isn’t actually about anything.   That is was just someone gassing away without actually saying something in particular. 

I enjoy gassing sometimes, but the gassing I like tends to ring with the author’s conviction that he really is saying something, and to come with lots of footnotes and references to history and philosophy that are at least interesting to consider.

The book would probably have stayed on my shelves and coffee tables and followed me around forever without ever being read, if it wasn’t for one other things–

It’s one of those books that nearly everybody references, always favorably. 

In the process of reading books that interest me far more, I will run across one line or the other using Boorstin to validate a point.   A lot of people seem to think that if Boorstin said it, we should all be taking it very seriously.

The latest author to do this with Boorstin was Bruce S. Thornton, one of Victor Davis Hanson’s people over at the Cal State Fresno Classics department and a writer on subjects like the culture of militant Islam.

I was actually rereading one of Thornton’s books, called Plagues of the Mind, when for some reason the references to Boorstin just started making me crazy, and the Boorstin book was right there, and…

And, I suppose, I decided that I might as well get it over with.  I didn’t have a next up book I really wanted to read.  The Boorstin book was staring at me, face out, from my office bookshelf.  I got hold of it and got started on it and…

The thing is just as damned awful as I thought it was going to be, and for just the reasons I thought it would be.

Part of this may be just where it is I am in time and space.  The Image was published in 1962 and has to do with the media and what the author calls the “rise of pseudo-events.”

By pseudo-events Boorstin means things like celebrity news and those political “debates” that aren’t really debates at all.  He goes on at some length about journalistic practices and how they’ve changed over time, press releases written in the past tense to describe things that haven’t happened yet, the rise of the interview and other things that seem silly and vaporous to me because I live beyond the point where they were new.

There is not a whole lot any of can do about the passage of time.  I have grown up in the world in which I have grown up, and that’s all there is to it.  A lot of what seemed unusual and strange to Boorstin is par for the course now.

But even after making exceptions for the passage of time, I am still struck by how nebulous this thing is.

There is a lot of faffing around and musing, but nothing much in the way of hard information.

We get an anecdote here and there, some of them interesting–I liked the information on the welcome home parade Chicago threw for Douglas McArthur.

But anecdotes aside, what we have is what that cover always made me expect–a lot of musing.

Muse muse.  Muse muse muse.

I am not nearly finished with this yet.  I’m not even half way through.  It’s possible that the tone and organization will change over the course of the book, and I’ll end up with something substantial after all.

But I’d be willing to be that won’t be the case.

That just doesn’t feel like the way this is going.

And that leaves me with a few questions.

First–this book was never a best seller, but it has been a steady seller for nearly 50 years.   It might be a CAT these days, but it wasn’t when it first came out, or even a few years later when I was in college.

And that means that there are people out there buying this book of their own free will and intention. 

They’re doing it on purpose and because they want to.

And the question is–why? 

Boorstin’s original readers might have found his ramblings illuminating, but nearly everything he actually has to say is now conventional wisdom, and banal conventional wisdom at that.

The significance of some of what he has to say has been over taken by events.  Network television forced us all into a news cycle that never ends?  Welcome to CNN!  People are becoming “well known for their well knownness”?  Let me introduce you to Kim Kardashian.

FWIW, Boorstin may have been the first person to define “celebrity” in that way.  We’ve change the formula to the snappier “famous for being famous,”  but it’s still a useful concept to have.

These days,  however, nobody has to go to Boorstin for that concept, and that bring me to my second question.

Why is it that so many writers who are–ahem–younger than I am so in love with this book?

People of my father’s generation may have learned something from this book, because many of the things it describes were relatively new.

People who grew up watching Jersey Shore will only learn something from this book if they have been entirely comatose throughout their entire upbringing.

Being a CAT may explain why this book is selling year after year.

It does not explain why the people who read it quote it in their own works and rhapsodize about it in essays and columns and blogs.

I am used to having minority tastes, but I find this entire phenomenon completely mystifing.

I find it much more mystifying than I find the popularity of Party Down South, which at least generates the fascination of a train wreck.

And it bothers me more than when lots of people like a novel that I don’t.

There isn’t even a definite partisan point of view, so that I could say that lots of people are using the book to bolster their pre-conceived ideologies.

There’s just…gently rolling mush.

Written by janeh

September 8th, 2014 at 10:18 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Awful'

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  1. Hmm. WARNING: I have not read this book, but I’ll comment anyway, based on Jane’s comment and reviews elsewhere.

    I did read some and maybe all of Boorstin’s American Trilogy in my undergraduate years–COLONIAL EXPERIENCE I’m certain of, and pretty sure of NATIONAL EXPERIENCE and DEMOCRATIC EXPERIENCE. I remember thinking he’d cooked the books a bit in COLONIAL EXPERIENCE, arriving at a conclusion not dictated by the evidence. The man certainly had all the signs of an establishment genius–early to college, Harvard, Oxford and Rhodes Scholarship. But in all his writing as a historian, I never found the piece of original research. There must have been something for his PhD, of course, but none of his books involved visiting archives, reading correspondence, checking archeological reports, walking sites and interviews–the sort of thing which is the craft of history since Herodotus. Other people did that, and Boorstin summarized them, and told the public what it meant. Well-read, no doubt, but not what I’d call a historian’s historian–and there is a price paid for not getting one’s hands dirty. You miss things, and you can be more certain than right.

    As for how this particular piece could be as bad as you say and still be in print and cited–well, there’s always a market for fluff, and there’s always a market for the pretentious. And when you can combine the two–Thoreau’s the limit. A quick check showed fairly recent reprints of FUTURE SHOCK, THE GREENING OF AMERICA, WALDEN TWO and even BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY, so all the aging stock brokers, real estate frauds and politicians can have something better looking on their glass-fronted book cases.

    And they picked sides, mostly. That was Menken’s problem, too. It looks like Boorstin nailed it. If you’re of the “countercultural” left, his book is evidence of the hollowness of America or the corruption of capitalism. If you’re of the curmudgeonly right, it’s proof the leftist wimps have taken over: things were different in the days of real men.

    Of course, that’s been going on for a long time. I’m reading Stacey’s QUEBEC, 1759, and in a few more pages the 32 year old Major General in charge of the British forces is going to recite “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” and announce that he’d rather have written that poem than win the next day’s battle. The younger generation is like that.

    robert_piepenbrink

    8 Sep 14 at 6:32 pm

  2. no comments but a question. What is CAT?

    jd

    8 Sep 14 at 10:36 pm

  3. Course Adoption Text, jd. Jane uses it when she means Required Reading List.

    robert_piepenbrink

    9 Sep 14 at 4:14 am

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