Association Executive Book Shelf

Books reviewed by Raphael Badagliacca

Amusing Ourselves to Death Amusing Ourselves to Death
by Neil Postman, with an introduction by Andrew Postman (2005, Penguin Books)

In the fast-paced breaking news internet world of information where we live, every book I read reminds me of the vanishing art of listening. When I read a book, I hear a single voice that slows things down and brings things together in ways that go beyond the daily blur, build perspective, and deliver meaning.

And if you read enough, you overhear conversations between books. One book references another, picks up a thread and weaves it into a tapestry.

There are also conversations between parts of a book, especially between the Introduction and the book itself. For the second time in this column that conversation is a cross-generational one, where a son writes about a classic book put out by his father.

The very idea that there could be such a thing as a classic non-fiction book, that endures in importance at a time when information has become so perishable is a confirmation of everything in the first paragraph of this review as well as a major endorsement of the book itself, almost giving the book the aura of prescience.

That is exactly the feeling one gets reading the anniversary edition introduction written by Andrew Postman for his father’s book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" originally published in 1985. The book has always drawn attention and a large following, but it burst back onto the scene in a big way during the presidential election of 2016 which seemed to fulfill the destiny of its message — that we live in "The Republic of Entertainment."

So, if you are asking whether this is a review of the introduction to a book the answer is yes. The book was written in 1985. The review was written in 2006. So, both are dated, but the ideas they advance are truer now than they were in the year the two writings took place. In this way, they are like observations about the universe that Einstein made but could not prove except in mathematical thought, that were confirmed when the technology of space exploration could catch up with his thinking. In this case, it is the advance of media events — the internet, in short — that makes Neil Postman’s 1985 observations on the curious effect media trends have on our minds — to reduce reflection and erase critical thinking.

"Screen time" when the book was first published meant television time, and now it largely means something different but the effects it observed have increased by orders of magnitude. "Twenty years is not what it used to be" is one of my favorite sentences in this introduction. It used to define a generation; now it defines three generations. The author calls up the contrast between two dystopian views of the future as assessed by his father. Literary and social critics have always given more credit to George Orwell’s view in "1984" — that reality would be controlled by big brother, an atmosphere of tyranny that called up the Stalin era — whereas Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World" advanced the view that the future would be controlled by our embrace of things that make us feel good, that entertain us.

The author and his son clearly credit Huxley’s view. Whatever is getting done to us we are willing participants.

Association leaders should read the book and the introduction in this special anniversary edition.

Hello World:  Being Human in an Age of Algorithms byDigital Renaissance: What Data and Economics Tell Us about the Future of Popular Culture
by Joel Waldfogel (2018, Princeton University Press)

Sometimes it is easier to grasp the pervasiveness of a development, even something as complex and elusive as an economic change, if we look at it through a different lens. "Digital Renaissance" does just that. It illustrates to what extent things around us have changed (and continue to change every day) by taking the analysis to a place where we let down our guard as willing participants — the world of entertainment.

This book is encyclopedic. It covers music, movies, television, books, photography, travel agents, and more. It explains how digital disruption has dismantled the accepted, traditional ways of doing things, while articulating the upsides and downsides of the dismantling. In the process it challenges the justifications for the old ways and the increases in possibility of the new ways. In short, the author asks whether all of this change in norms means we are in a crisis or a renaissance.

The title gives a clue to the author’s inclination, but this is by no means a clear-cut conclusion.

Self-publishing to take one for instance means there are more books than ever before. The gatekeeper methods of the past may have prevented a number of impressive works from reaching publishing nirvana, but now the sheer number of titles makes it hard for readers to find the good ones. Yet, some do get through and make it that would not otherwise see the light of day.

The author’s observations on copyrights and the economics of everything are enlightening.

Even if you are not drawn to entertainment (and who isn’t?) this book’s analyses will clarify what you do care about, since everything has been touched and transformed. These are trends and realities association leaders just can’t know enough about.