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And etc and so on and things of that nature generally.

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the classic book by Neil Postman about the negative impact of television replacing print as the primary medium of public discourse, framed on the hook that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was a more accurate prophecy of future Western dystopia than George Orwell’s 1984 – that is, the biggest threat to autonomy and free thought isn't totalitarian strongarm govt suppression, but enabling endless amusement that encourages us not to think at all. It’s not the usual anti-TV tirade some people might expect – Postman’s target isn’t “junk” TV shows but “serious” shows that claim to be informative, intellectual and educational but aren’t – nor can they be, because the medium of television simply isn't designed for it. TV transforms news, education, religion and elections into dumbed down entertainment that converts knowledge into non-contextual useless trivia.

Naturally it’s tricky to read this with 30+ years of hindsight since its publication in 1985, not least since on-demand TV, the internet, smartphones and social media have changed how people watch and interact with TV. Even discounting that, Postman sometimes overstates his case a little, and some of his examples don’t quite work for me – particularly his criticism of Sesame Street. And yet, overall, when you look at the multimedia landscape today, he wasn’t wrong in terms of entertainment value rather than substance becoming the chief prerequisite of TV news, religion and election campaigns. One wonders what he would make of blogs, Twitter, and “tl;dr”. Anyway, I’d recommend this to anyone who wants to understand what we sacrificed when we embraced television as a cultural centerpiece. Even if it doesn’t answer all yr questions, it’s a great conversation-starter. (Also recommended: How to Watch TV News)

After Things Fell ApartAfter Things Fell Apart by Ron Goulart

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is another Ron Goulart novel that I read maybe 30 years ago and decided to re-read, and it’s one of his more acclaimed novels. The setting is a fragmented future America which, following a failed invasion by China, has devolved into packs of subcultures fighting for dominance – at least in California where the story takes place. This being Goulart, though, all of that is just a comic backdrop for a detective story in which Private Inquiry Office agent Jack Haley searches for Lady Day, a militant feminist outfit killing prominent officials in broad daylight. This book may be difficult for many people to like. It’s not serious, realistic speculative fiction, but rather the kind of oddball bare-bones 2D comic-book adventure that Goulart typically writes. Also, the story’s inclusion of casual racism, sexism and homophobia is going to put some people off, though it may help to know the book was published in 1970 when all three were prominent at a time when minorities, women and LGBTs were fighting for their civil liberties – Goulart’s America is a reflection of the social tensions at the time. Anyway, it’s a little different from Goulart’s usual stories in terms of setting, but otherwise for me it’s a typical Goulart romp – lightweight, but entertainingly madcap.

The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the WorldThe Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been aware of the Stainless Steel Rat series for a long time, but I was never really motivated to try it. My motivation for trying this one was driven partly by it being a cheap used copy, and partly by recently reading and liking Make Room! Make Room!. This is the third installment of the life and times of Slippery Jim diGriz, a master thief in the far-flung future who is recruited by Special Corps, an intergalactic law enforcement agency that recruits criminals like him. In this episode, someone has gone back in time to erase the Special Corps from existence, and diGriz must go back 32,000 years to the planet Dirt (or Earth, or something) circa 1975 to stop them. The story is textbook romp as diGriz adapts to mid-70s Earth society, hunts down the culprits, and encounters one obstacle after another as his plans don’t exactly pan out. It sounds like fun, and it’s meant to be, but I confess I didn't get much out of it. The time travel bits are clunky, the villain speaks comic-book dialogue, and diGriz himself is a bit too flip about the whole thing – or maybe not flip enough. I realize none of this is meant to be taken seriously, but I just felt Harrison wasn’t having as much fun with this as he could be – or at least not as much fun as I’d hoped. Which is my problem, of course, not his. And I don’t know how it compares to other books in the series – maybe this wasn’t a good one to start out with. I’d like to try more Harrison, but I’ll skip the other SSR books for now.

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I remember wanting to read this in high school – until I realized it wasn’t about the Invisible Man from the horror movies, after which I lost interest. It might be as well, since – like a lot of classic lit – I probably wouldn’t have appreciated this at the time. But I can appreciate it now. The narrator of the story is invisible in the social sense, in that people refuse to see not only his reality as an African-American, but the reality of all African-Americans. From his early youth in the racist South to his college years and his migration to New York City where he becomes the Harlem spokesperson of “The Brotherhood” – a left-wing activist group promoting sociopolitical change (basically Marxists all in but name) – the nameless narrator deals with the issue of identity (personal, racial and political) as his illusions and expectations are shattered one by one. It’s a very intense book with a sympathetic if flawed main character – you want him to succeed and it hurts when he doesn’t. It's also absurdly funny at times. What’s really striking about reading this for the first time in a post-Ferguson world is that the Ferguson story is nothing new. It’s very old, and there are still people who refuse to even acknowledge this reality – as if the Mike Browns of the world are still invisible to them. Which makes this novel as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1952. Essential reading.

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