Sunday, January 31, 2010

Week 3.......and 4. Sue me.

Okay, what had happened was............

I work a lot. I'm a Navy air traffic controller. There's gonna be some weeks when I literally have no free time whatsoever, from sunrise until midnight. Last week was one of those times, and so the book I was reading necessarily spilled over into this week. To make up for it, I read another one in a day. So technically, I read two books in two weeks. That's called math, folks.

Sometimes you come across a book that changes the way you look at the world. It might not be life-changing in the sense of some college student reading Ishmael and being inspired to eat leaves and grow douchebag dreadlocks. Maybe it just changes the way you think about a certain period in history, or challenges what you thought you knew about a topic. The first book I read was one of those experiences for me. It was Neil Postman's "The Disappearance of Childhood", an amazing and entertaining piece of pop scholarship that deserves it's own Ken Burn's documentary. I really can't say enough good things about this book.

Like I said, the revelations I had reading this aren't of the kind that are gonna change my daily life in any way, they weren't some dramatic Deepak Chopra epiphany............but it was a huge paradigm shift for me in the terms of how I view children, childhood, and the history of western culture. I just always took for granted that childhood and human nature were a package deal. That the idea of childhood had always been here, in the same conceptual form it is now. But Postman argues (very persuasively) that the modern concept of childhood has NOT always been with us, that children were NOT always viewed as a special and separate class of people apart from adults, and finally, that the concept is on the decline once again thanks to mass media treatment of children as both consumers and sexual beings (ie: kiddie pageants).

His basic thesis is that the age of the printing press ushered in a new kind of knowledge, and that the ability to read and write became a cultural line in the sand between adults and children, something that didn't exist prior to that time. He gives evidence that before the printing press came along, children were viewed as "little adults". For example there was no such thing as children's clothes, and regardless of age children were not shielded from grown-up talk about sex, death, curse words, and anything else that we say "earmuffs" for today. There was no public school system before the printing press, and so kid's went to work at a much (MUCH) earlier age.

And that's just the first chapter. I'll let you read the book for the rest of the "journey of childhood" and why Postman believes it is declining.

The book did leave me with my doubts...........I mean, it's a little difficult to imagine that there was NO concept of childhood as we view it today prior to the 17th century, when every museum I've ever been to features wooden toys and dolls from virtually every time period in human history, going back to ancient african, native american and mayan civilizations. I mean, I would think that the idea of a toy itself points to some separation between adult and child. But the book mainly defines childhood as those ages between 7 and 17, so maybe it's a moot point anyway.

I highly, highly recommend this book. It's one of the most fascinating non-fiction books I've read in a very long time.

The second book I read...........or in this case, a personal favorite of mine. "Mao II" by the ridiculously talented Don Delillo.

I'll say it, I think the guy is a certified genius. His way with words is unequaled in modern American writers, followed closely only by Tom Robbins and Cormac McCarthy at their best. And even they would have a hard time digging as deeply into the human condition as Dellilo does with one paragraph from any of his classic novels (Libra, White Noise, the list goes on).

Mao II is my favorite book by Delillo, and this is my second time reading it. Ostensibly it tells the story of a reclusive writer struggling to finish his long-awaited third novel. But between the lines it's a rumination on the nature of genius, art, terrorism, terrorism as art, and maybe most of all, mobs and crowds and cults as social phenomena. From the first page onward this book digs into your gray matter and doesn't let go, and I don't think any other novel has more deeply influenced my own writing, or at least ambitions of writing.

Check both of these books immediately.

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