The Way We Never Were: A Book Review of Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason”

I recently read Susan Jacoby’s book, “The Age of American Unreason.”

The book is suffused with nostalgia for a time in America when the life of the mind was more valued than it seems to her to be today. Her evidence, however, is largely anecdotal. She refers, for example, to her experience, as a young woman in the 1960s, of writing long “snail mail” letters to a lover in South Africa, chronicling the zeitgeist of her place and time, and how he did the same. She praises this languid and sensuous form of communication, then contrasts it with the emotional flatness that she feels sending off electronic e-mails today, which she notes are rarely responded to with any degree of passion or detail.

Her thesis, in short, is that contemporary electronic communication, from TV and the Internet, to mass advertising, has drawn America away from nature, books, and the life of the mind. She perceives, correctly, that Steven Johnson’s book of just a few years back, “Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter,” threatens her thesis, and she attempts, in her first chapter, to dispatch it quickly. But rather than address the substantive claims and supports that book offers, she maligns it with little more than innuendo, contempt, and derision. But Johnson’s book is, whatever else you may think of it, suffused with a good deal of empirical data, and Jacoby chooses to simply ignore it and move on.

I share Jacoby’s sadness that the life of the mind is not broadly valued, but I don’t share her belief that it was ever valued all that much more than it is today. The nostalgic aspect of her book is thus the weakest part of it because she is doing something inherently unreasonable, accumulating anecdotes that do not add up (at least for me) to a compelling support for her claim. It was, afterall, William F. Buckley who said, long before the Internet and TV preachers presumably made us all stupid, that he preferred that the country be trusted to the first fifty names in the Boston phone book to the faculty of Harvard. Contempt and distrust of intellectuals and the elite, like the poor, have been with us always. Jacoby, who has written a book on Greek tragedy, surely knows Aristophanes’ “The Clouds,” a funny and disturbing send up of the atheist intellectuals of ancient Greece.

For all my complaints, however, the book is worth having and reading, if, for no other reason, to draw fresh intellectual air from someone who loves the life of the mind. But let’s not kid ourselves. The average person in 1950 probably could no more locate Iran on a world map than a person can today.

Here’s the link to the book at Amazon:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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