Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason

I expected to love Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason. Charles P. Pierce, whose Idiot America I enjoyed a lot, has nothing but praise for Jacoby's book. Still, The Age of American Unreason was a huge disappointment. If the author had bothered to warn her readers that the book is nothing but her own intellectual biography, it wouldn't be such a huge letdown.
The saddest part about Jacoby's work is that a book about anti-intellectualism in America is based on incredibly broad generalizations that can hardly be called intellectual. Jacoby is evidently enamored of her smalltown childhood experiences. This would be perfectly fine if it weren't for Jacoby's constant attempts to extrapolate these experiences onto the US at large. Here is an example of how a vague childhood impression is used to make a political point: "I cannot prove it . . . but I think that most of the adults in my neighborhood would have scoffed at any suggestion that Genesis should receive equal time with Darwin in public school biology classes. I am quite certain that they would have been puzzled by the question." Maybe if you can't prove it you should avoid bringing it up? How can any one argue with a statement that is so vague? It would be very easy to propose pretty much anything if couched in this imprecise terms.
Of course, a book on anti-intellectualism has to name names. I was very curious to see who the biggest anti-intellectualist in America is. The answer came fast: it's me. I read using en electronic reading device (I actually read Jacoby's book on my Kindle), I watch a lot of television, I love my Ipod and my cell phone, I listen to Eminem, and - one of the worst transgressions against all things intellectual - I blog. According to Jacoby, all of this means that I don't read good books (in her opinion, nobody will ever read anything worthwhile on a Kindle) and must have an attention span of a guinea pig.
Jacoby suffers from a curious form of intellectual rigidity. She associates everything that was good about American culture with the decades of her own youth. Everything that came after that is by definition wrong and evil. She paints a picture of the 50ies where modest-income families sat around reading Dickens, admiring Gaugin, and listening to opera and constrasts it with a cartoonish image of a mindless blogging e-mailing Internet-and-TV-addicted culture of the past two decades. The last decade when anything worth mentioning took place was the decade of the sixties. Since then, we have been doing nothing but reflecting on the 60ies and regurgitating the important advances of those years.
Instead of acknowledging that it's hard for her to keep up with the modern technological advances, Jacoby creates a theory that condemns everybody who feels at home in a world of blogs, Kindles, and Ipods. She wastes so much space in her book disapproving of the younger generations and lecturing us on how much better and more intellectual her generation was that it becomes hard to absorb anything of value that she has to offer. Jacoby must have forgotten that when she was younger people of preceding generations were persecuting her with very similar the-young-people-today-are-not-what-they-used-to-be rants.


NancyP said...

Her previous book, Freethinkers, a history of American atheists/agnostics, was far superior. She rehashes bits of Freethinkers in Age of A.U., and doesn't have enough data in the rest of the book. I did find the section about book-of-the-month clubs interesting, though there are better sources, I am sure.

You might learn something from Freethinkers, if you are interested in history.

Clarissa said...

I did like the parts that had to do with history, but everything that deals with today's technology was hopeless.