Saturday, November 27, 2004

Cultural twilight

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve run out of library books (just finished David Halberstam’s wonderful October 1964), so I began scouring my own bookshelves for reading material. I read several essays by the late Neil Postman (from Conscientious Objections) and then began skimming through my own bookshelves looking for other nuggets. I came across Morris Berman’s book, The Twilight of American Culture, which I bought back in 2001. Berman, a cultural historian and social critic, offered a fascinating prescription for dealing with the cultural rot that seemed prevalent in America at the time. Having seen things shift perceptively more negative since my first reading, I’ve begun pulling fascinating material from my second trip through the text.

While Berman spends plenty of time detailing our cultural race to the bottom, I think he paints a prescriptive option for maintaining our dignity, intelligence and preserving the best of Western ideals. His concept draws upon the monastic movement of the Middle Ages to illustrate ways individuals can ward off the onslaught of McWorld and corporate hegemony.

Berman gives many anecdotes and quotes statistics, as well as drawing upon the work of other writers and researchers to illustrate our dropping levels of literacy, critical awareness, and general intellectual awareness.

One statistic he quotes from Paul Fussell’s book, BAD, Or The Dumbing of America that shocked me was the statistic that only six percent of Americans read one book per year, with “book” being anything from harlequin romance novels to self-help books. Berman cites the depressing statistic that 60 percent of Americans have never read a novel! I know we are not a nation of readers, but these numbers are terribly deflating.

I have not been able to substantiate the numbers that Berman cites, but they have certainly whetted my curiosity to do more investigation.

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