Book review: Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is a tricky review to write because I’m having a very bad time finishing this book. Indeed, while it did start well, and I was actually interested in the idea behind the book, it easily got nasty, in my mind. But let’s start from the top, and let me try to write a review of a book I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish without feeling ill.

I found the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, through a blog post in one of the Planets I follow, and I found the premise extremely interesting: has the coming of the show business era meant that people are so much submersed by entertainment to lose sight of the significance of news? Unfortunately, as I said the book itself, to me, does not make the point properly, as it exaggerates to the point of no return. While the book has been written in 1985 – which means it has no way to know the way the Web changed media once again – it is proposed to be still relevant today in the introduction as written by the son of the author. I find that proposition unrealistic. It goes as far as stating that most of the students the book was told to read agreed with it — I would venture a guess that most of them didn’t want to disagree with their teacher.

First of all, the author is a typography snob and that can be easily seen when he spends pages and pages telling all the nice things about printed word — at the same time, taking slights at the previous “media” of spoken word. But while I do agree with one of the big points in the book (the fact that different forms makes discourse “change” — after all, my blog posts have a different tone from Autotools Mythbuster, and from my LWN articles), I do not think that a different tone makes for a more or less “validity” of it. Indeed this is why I find it extremely absurd that, for Wikipedia, I’m unreliable when writing on this blog, but I’m perfectly reliable the moment I write Autotools Mythbuster.

Now, if you were to take the first half of the book and title it something like “History of the printed word in early American history”, it would be a very good and enlightening read. It helps a lot to frame into context the history of America especially compared to Europe — I’m not much of an expert in history, but it’s interesting to note how in America, the religious organisations themselves sponsored literacy, while in Europe, Catholicism tried their best to keep people within the confines of illiteracy.

Unfortunately, he then starts with telling how evil the telegraph was by bringing in news from remote places, that people, in the author’s opinion, have no interest in, and should have no right to know… and the same kind of evilness is pointed out in photography (including the idea that photography has no context because there is no way to take a photograph out of context… which is utterly false, as many of us have seen during the reporting of recent wars. Okay, it’s all gotten much easier thanks to Photoshop, but in no way it was impossible in the ‘80s.

Honestly, while I can understand having a foregone conclusion in mind, after explaining how people changed the way they speak with the advent of TV, no longer caring about syntax frills and similar, trying to say that in TV the messages are drown in a bunch of irrelevant frills is … a bit senseless. The same way it is senseless to me to say that typography is “pure message” — without even acknowledging that presentation is an issue for typography as much as TV, after all we wouldn’t have font designers otherwise.

While some things are definitely interesting to read – like the note about the use of pamphlet in the early American history that can easily compare to blogs today – the book itself is a bust, because there is no premise of objectivity, it’s just a long text to find reasons to reach the conclusion the author already had in mind… and that’s not what I like to read.

Hopefully it’ll go better with my next read.

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