If you’re in the mood for a harrowing reality check, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is the antidote to your craving. Postman’s revelatory book was initially published in the 1980s, but his exploration of America’s preoccupation with entertainment is still sharp and pertinent. And it has retained its power to make us re-think the role of technology in our everyday lives.
Throughout Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman questions how the content of our culture has been radically altered by the emergence of new media. As he states, “our notions of truth and our ideas of intelligence have changed as a result of new media displacing the old.” The assertion that cultural practices and technologies constantly influence and respond to one another might seem like a value neutral observation, but as Postman delves deeper into his analysis, it becomes obvious that he views the shift from the Age of Exposition (text-based communication) to the Age of Show Business (image-based communication) as a profoundly problematic and troubling phenomenon.
Most people know David Byrne as a musician, with the Talking Heads and as a solo artist. In his three-decade career, Byrne always managed to incorporate a diverse collection of international influences in his sound. In Bicycle Diaries, he has found an equally engaging role as a worldwide cultural critic. The book is much more than a travelogue though. It is a grand celebration of how people live, observed from the seat of a two-wheeler as it whisks through city streets worldwide. It is made up of meditations on art, politics, architecture, and so much more.
When biking through a city, one is more agile than a car, faster than a pedestrian, and taller than anything that isn't a Hum-Vee or on horseback. You see details that others can not, providing a wholly unique perspective of how this particular city works.
It's 1933 and President Roosevelt is having a devil of a time finding someone to appoint to the post of ambassador to Germany in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. All of the usual picks politely decline the post, as news of Germany’s foreboding political atmosphere drifts to America. Roosevelt eventually settles on William E. Dodd, a historian at the University of Chicago whose primary goal is to finish his multi-volume historical treatise on the antebellum South before he dies. By most accounts, Dodd is an odd pick for ambassador, being neither rich nor well-connected. Most ambassadors entertain lavishly during their appointments, and it is expected that the costs will come from their own coffers. Frugal Dodd immediately made waves by pledging to live solely on his meager income, almost unheard of in cosmopolitan Berlin.
Dodd naively sees the appointment as a respite from the trials of University department chairmanship and a boon of time to work on his project. He, like most Americans, is grossly uninformed about the political machinations happening in Germany, as Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels vie for power and German Jews are increasingly menaced. The entire Dodd family decides to come along to Berlin, ready for a new lark: the professor and his wife, Mattie, their son, William Jr., and their beautiful, flirtatious, 24-year-old daughter, Martha (who happens to also be fleeing the wreckage of a precipitous marriage to a banker).
Years ago when researchers were in heated debates about whether or not animals can think, I could have told them that they do. When I was first married I had an incredible dog named Doctor. One day when I was young and stupid, I had a knock on my door. There was a man standing outside my door whom I didn’t recognize, so I locked my screen door to keep my dog in and stepped outside to see what this man wanted. He began to ask me some very bizarre questions about the neighborhood. He kept stepping back to draw me away from my front door. Suddenly I found that I had gone into my front yard to talk to this strange young man. Red flags were going off in my brain at this point. He was about to ask me another odd question when he suddenly stopped and said, “I have to go.” He turned around and walked quickly away. I thought, “What a strange man that was!” When I turned around I discovered that Doctor had jumped up, unhooked the screen door, and was sitting behind me with his lips curled back in a silent growl. Evidently, he thought that the man was odd also.
When my husband bought me Alex & Me, by Irene Pepperberg, last year and gently said, “I think that you would like this," I politely thanked him and stubbornly put it on the shelf. A year later I picked it up and now I grudgingly have to admit that he was correct. I do love this book!
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The Power of Babel by John McWhorter: There are approximately 6000 languages on earth today, the descendants of the tongue first spoken by homo sapiens some 150,000 years ago. How did they all develop? What happened to the first language? In this irreverent romp through territory too often claimed by stodgy grammarians, McWhorter ranges across linguistic theory, geography, history, and pop culture to tell the fascinating story of how thousands of very different languages have evolved from a single, original source in a natural process similar to biological evolution. While laying out how languages mix and mutate over time, he reminds us of the variety within the species that speaks them, and argues that, contrary to popular perception, language is not immutable and hidebound, but a living, dynamic entity that adapts itself to an ever-changing human environment." (Catalog Summary")
If you like The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, you may also like these selections.
The Beginning of Language: Opposing Viewpoints by Clarice Swisher
Discusses historical, philosophical, and scientific theories about the mysterious origins of human language. (catalog summary)
Empires of the World: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler
Head of the Foundation for Endangered Languages, Ostler draws on his extensive study and research, mostly into now dead languages, to trace the history of the world's major languages. Language is always linked to a particular time and place, he says, but at the same time it is a unbroken link to all people in all times, and has played a larger role in history than any prince or economy. First he considers early languages that became dominant in certain areas or by migration, then more recent ones that have spread throughout the world by colonialism.(catalog summary)
For many of us Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer. Pools and amusement parks open to a regular schedule, children bring out their water toys, picnics are planned, and moms start dreading the increased loads of laundry.
Amidst all this excitement, we should always pause and take a few moments to honor the service members who have served and given their lives for this country.
One way to honor these brave men and women is to provide resources that can assist their family members and also all the surviving veterans and military members.
"We have no dinosaur, it says on a hand-lettered sign outside a farm that puts on rattlesnake rodeos."
To find pleasure in Conquest of the Useless, you must have at least a passing familiarity with the filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog has been writing and directing films for five decades, but only a few of his movies have broken into the American mainstream. The most well known here are the documentary Grizzly Man and the Vietnam War film Rescue Dawn (starring Christian Bale).
Each of Herzog's works oozes with a mood of effortless intensity, as if he has summoned the stress and obsessions of humanity like moths to a flame. Whether it's Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man's protagonist, who lived with and was inevitably eaten by bears) or Nosferatu (from Herzog's 1979 remake), the director is singular in his subjects' driven focus on their goals and desire, no matter how self-destructive they may be.
If there was one thing that people across the country could agree on right now, it would be the ridiculously high cost of today’s college education. Most parents assume that student loans are a fact of life, and most students assume that student loan debt is a necessary and even positive thing. If you want to get a good job, it’s commonly thought that going to a good college (chosen in part by U.S. News and World Report rankings) and getting a good name on your diploma simply costs money and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Some people find faith in a blinding flash, like Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus. For others, this can be a lifelong journey. Share the various roads followed (and destinations found!) on the these spiritual journeys of finding and losing faith, returning to church, searching for meaning or experiencing profound spirituality outside of organized religion in the updated booklist "Soul Searching."
Sometimes a book tells a wonderfully enchanting story. Sometimes it is nonfiction and conveys information. There are a few books that are able to do both. Out of those few books that do both, there are a handful that can really cause you to question the reality that you have known as truth. Neither Wolf, Nor Dog, by Kent Nerburn, is one of those special books.
Nerburn’s book is a true story. When he was a young anthropologist who specialized in Native Americans, he was invited to meet with an Indian Elder in order to write down his thoughts and memories. After Nerburn accepts the challenge, he and Dan, the Lakota elder, begin to go across the Black Hills on a spiritual journey that is both mystical and enlightening.