Tag Archives: culture

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

Standard

The world has changed much in 30 years: today, we have access to more information than we’ll ever need in 100 lifetimes through a device that fits in our pocket. We can communicate face to face to relatives across the world in real time through a screen. These are just a couple of the many differences found in early 21st century society, so one would think that a book written about technology in 1985 would be irrelevant to today’s technology users. Ironically, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is even more important today than 3 decades ago. To be certain, there are some laughable anecdotes: near the end of the last chapter, Postman claims that computers are “a vastly overrated technology” which couldn’t be farther from the truth today. Nonetheless, so much of what he says in Amusing Ourselves is spot on and even truer today.

Postman compares Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.  People are always concerned about  a real life “Big Brother”government control, censorship and spying to name a few. While these concerns have been a reality found in recent history, Postman claims North American society is much closer to Brave New World than 1984. Postman claims that there will always be opposition to totalitarian control and censorship as it is very identifiable and a clear infringement on a society’s rights. It is Huxley’s theory of an entertainment culture- one too absorbed to care about oppression- that is the greatest threat to our society. North American society has come to adore their amusing technological oppression.

Postman looks at the print society of the enlightenment years- schooling was few and far between, yet books couldn’t be printed fast enough to satisfy society’s thirst for knowledge. Postman cites the debates Abraham Lincoln had with Stephen A. Douglas: Douglas would first be given an hour to speak, Lincoln an hour and a half, then Douglas again for an hour and a half reply. These debates were shorter than what they were accustomed too, and yet common men and women would attend them as an informing, yet restful event. The attention span of today’s average Joe would not be able to handle such a long, complex activity. As a comparison, Postman especially criticizes television news for this reason: each news story is given minutes (if that) to be presented before it is quickly switched out for the following story. The viewer barely has time to think about what s/he just saw before being pummeled with more information. I recall a few months back watching television news with family (I do not have cable in my own home so this is a rarity for myself) and I was shocked to see things like murders, protests, and other devastating issues being given seconds of screen time vs. the ten minutes a feel-good story about an abstract painter was given. Viewers don’t want to end off on a sad note lest they start thinking of implications for their own lives.

Even though Postman focuses on television culture, these observations and even more true today. Distraction culture is more prominent now with smart phones: individuals can barely make it through an hour without checking their updates, replying to a text or scrolling through the web. When groups of people go out to eat or to other social activities, most of the time is now spent looking at phones instead of conversing. We are more interconnected than ever before, yet lonelier than ever because we have lost the art of meaningful conversation and appreciation for enjoying activities that don’t revolve around a screen.

If Postman were alive today, I would be very interested to hear what he’d say about today’s entertainment culture. I know for myself his book had a profound influence for me and I have begun to examine myself when I am spending excess time on social media or other wasteful forms of entertainment. I have been spending more time doing more meaningful activities that are still restful, and I have been appreciating the fruits that come from that. I recommend everyone to evaluate themselves using Amusing Ourselves, and to make positive changes in their lives.

 

 

Advertisements

Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Standard

hedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog, in French: L’Élégance du hérisson, is written by the French novelist and professor of philosophy Muriel Barbery. The book follows the life of a concierge, Renée Michel, whose hidden intelligence is discovered by no one save a precocious twelve year-old girl named Paloma Josse who lives in the same building.

Paloma is the daughter of an upper-class family living in a fancy Parisian apartment building at 7 Rue de Grenelle – one of the most elegant streets in Paris. Divided into eight luxury apartments, the building has a courtyard and a private garden. Paloma is a mature young girl who loves reading Japanese manga, haiku, and tanka. She has a surprising grasp of the ways of the world despite her age.

Renée Michel is the concierge of the building. She has never been to college, but has taught herself to read the German philosopher Immanuel Kant and Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, adores 17th-century Dutch paintings, and listens to the music of Purcell and Mahler. Paloma refers to Renée as having the elegance of the hedgehog.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is full of allusions to literary works, music, films and art. The novel is presented through the thoughts of the two narrators, Renée and Paloma. Paloma’s narration takes the form of her written journal entries, and Renée’s story is told in the first person and present tense.

A cultured Japanese businessman named Kakuro Ozu takes a room in the apartment building. Somehow he is able to gain Paloma’s trust and to break through Renée’s thin disguise.

First released in August 2006 by Gallimard, the novel became a publishing success in France the following year, selling over two million copies. It has been translated into more than forty languages, and published in numerous countries outside France.
Caron Naysmith www.tbpl.ca

Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn

Standard

Ishmael is the kind of book that makes you think. It stays with you long after it’s finished, and has you pondering about the way you live your life. It has you questioning the authenticity of your own human perspective, and deliberating on how things came to be as they are. Can they feasibly stay that way and are we right after all?

I happened upon this book quite by accident. It’s one of those little gems you ordinarily wouldn’t look twice at, but over the years, Quinn has established a cult following, and is read, discussed, and debated in both school and academic contexts.

Entirely fictional, it presents us with a rational and utterly plausible view of society and the history of the world. Dividing mankind into two groups – Takers and Leavers – or Us and Primitive Society – the story is told in a teaching setting between a man and a gorilla: the gorilla being Ishmael, and Ishmael being the teacher. The man responded to an ad in the newspaper, which he at first disregarded as preposterous and outrageous, but to which he applied none-the-less:

 TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.

 Quinn’s choice of a gorilla for the main character may, at first, seem odd, especially when the gorilla communicates telepathically with the man, but if Ishmael were to be another man, then the reader could not be as convinced of the message. Ishmael needs to be a gorilla due to his close evolutionary relationship with man, and he needs to be an animal in order to provide the outside perspective of a potential loser in man’s quest to make the world his own. As Ishmael says:

WITH MAN GONE,

WILL THERE

BE HOPE

FOR GORILLA?

and

WITH GORILLA GONE,

WILL THERE

BE HOPE

FOR MAN?

As equally entertaining as it is interesting and enlightening, I recommend this book to anyone with a conscience, and an earnest desire to save the world from themselves.

Rosemary

Englishmen in France or Is the Hundred Year’s War actually over?

Standard

Every since I can remember, the thought of running off to  France, to immerse myself in the culture, the food, the history,and of course,  the glorious weather has been a cherished dream. In the case of these two Englishmen; sometimes living a dream is not quite what you expect.

provencePeter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” chronicles in a month by month account, the joys and trials of Mayle and his wife’s first year living in the remote country village of Luberon restoring a two century old stone farmhouse. Nothing in their quiet English pasts prepared them to cope with the cavalcade of eccentric neighbours, bizarre laws and strange customs that characterize the village. The book is a hilarious read, as well as a seductive introduction to  all the earthy pleasures of Provencal life.

A Year in the Merde is the almost-true account of the Stephen Clark’s adventures as an expat in Paris. Based on his own experiences and with names changed to “avoid embarrassment, possible legal action and to prevent the author’s legs being broken by someone in a Yves Saint Laurent suit”. Narrated by Paul West, a twenty-seven-year-old Brit who is brought to Paris by a French company to open a chain of British “tea rooms.” He must manage of a group of lazy, grumbling French employees,  a treacherous Parisian boss, and a succession of lusty merdegirlfriends. Clark paints each character with love and humour and the driest of English wit  .

Both books have spawned a number of sequels, Peter Mayle has also continued his adventures in “Toujours Provence“, “Hotel Pastis” and “Encore Provence“, as well as other culinary and cultural adventures in France.  Stephen Clark has continued Paul West’s saga in “Merde Actually“, “Dial M for Merde“, as well as “Talk to the Snail”.