THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS
Ah, 1996. It was a great year. I'm going to miss it. It was a year that kept me busy, as I helped us get moved into a new library, and tried desperately to figure out where things were now located. I put a lot of time into writing this column, and into putting everything I know about books onto my other column, BookBytes. My son moved off to Boston, but I acquired a number of close friends, and my social life took off amazingly. Well, what with one thing and another, I didn't read anywhere near as much in 1996 as I normally do.
Nonetheless, what I did read, as always, changed my thinking. Before 1997 gets seriously under weigh, I'd like to celebrate it by telling you about some of its most interesting books. I already told you about three of them, which, read together, explain a lot about American dissatisfaction, in The Dilbertizing of America. Here are some of the other reading highlights of my year:
John Tauber and Sheldon Rampton. Toxic Sludge Is Good for You. This is a must read for anyone who thinks public relations is a harmless sort of business. Because when any business is doing awful things to the environment, or to consumers or employees, it mounts an intensely sophisticated public relations campaign. When any country is torturing and murdering its citizens, it mounts a public relations campaign to convince American legislators that it's nothing the United States government should worry about.
The public relations people start wining and dining legislators and prominent journalists, especially the ones who frequent the Sunday talk shows. They offer their own statistics and research data to congressional committees, along with expert witnesses. They sponsor expensive advertising campaigns to sway public opinion--think of the "Harry and Louise" campaign against the Clinton health care reform proposal. The big P.R. firms are able to create public policy, and drown out the opposition, because the people who work for these firms are themselves Washington insiders--former congressmen and cabinet members--and because they routinely contribute to and work for political candidates. This book is one of several influences that have convinced me that I cannot any longer, in good conscience, be a Democrat--and God knows, not a Republican, either--because both parties are wholly owned by big business and big money, and neither party cares all that much about the citizens it is supposed to serve.
Toxic Sludge needs to be read alongside of James Twitchell's Ad Cult, which says that advertising is not a supplement to our culture, or a sponsor of our culture--it is our culture--indeed, that every other part of our culture--television, movies, art exhibits, ice skating extravaganzas, theme parks, concerts, etc.--exists solely to deliver an audience to Ad Cult. This is kind of a scary book, on a topic I have expressed concern about myself in Ad Lib, but a convincing and important one.
James Carville's We're Right, They're Wrong. is not only a timely reminder that government in fact does many useful and necessary things--it is also wildly amusing. Carville is a perfectly serious political operative, a man who helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992, but he is also a man who never stopped being the class clown. One of the depressing things to me about the Democratic party, of late, has been its failure to explain to the public what government actually does (something I attempted to explain in No Government Day). I figure, before you destroy the Department of Commerce, for example, you should pause to reflect that it collects most of the statistics on our economy, as well as all our meteorological data. Carville provides some needed history of how the federal government over the years stepped in to protect people from unsafe food and water, from infectious disease, from precarious old age, from indigence, from fraud, and from natural disasters. Just when we most needed a ringing endorsement of government intervention, Carville comes to the rescue. Entertainingly, at that.
James Fallows' book, Breaking the News, is about how the media undermine American democracy. Few of the arguments he makes are new--many of them have been made by Thomas Patterson (in Out of Order) and Larry Sabato (in Feeding Frenzy), but he has brought them all together in a concise, persuasive case against media cynicism. I have been interested in journalism for a long time because I am convinced that the success of American democracy depnds entirely on what mainstream journalists allow citizens to know. (I say mainstream, because most people's interest in government is casual, and they are content to get their news from the television networks, CNN, and from a small number of "agenda-setting" newspapers. It doesn't matter that skilled information specialists like me know how to find out a great deal more about what's really going on, because determined information-seekers are a very small minority of the population.)
Fallows makes the case that 1) the elite journalists feel that saying anything good about public officials makes them suspect and puts them at risk of being proved wrong; 2) journalists who want to be Woodward and Bernstein actively seek scandal, and ignore the day-to-day work of government; 3) journalists start with their own unconscious assumptions (such as, that bureaucrats by definition do dumb things), and all information is then filtered through those assumptions; and 4) journalists feel that their job is to provide context and analysis, rather than to "transcribe" the words of public officials--which means, effectively, that the 7- second soundbytes we are now allowed to hear of political speeches are framed between two sneers.
All of these media habits have a deadly effect on public confidence in, and understanding of, government. This is one of a number of books that have convinced me that having a new party isn't enough. We need a new journalism as well, and I am eagerly waiting to see whether the new wave of "public journalism" catches on, as well as how the news and information available on the internet will force change on the dinosaurs of mainstream media.
Edward Tenner's Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences makes a compelling case that it is not an accident, but an inevitability, that technology will undercut itself, that it carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. If we, for example, interfere with nature and create antibiotics that kill bacteria, the bacteria will inevitably fight back by creating new generations of bacteria that are resistant. This is not a book I can synopsize very well. I simply recommend it heartily.
Marc Parent's book, Turning Stones, was a difficult book to read. It's not like I don't know the world can be a mean and sad place--no, my cheerful outlook on the world has to do with the fact that most of the people immediately surrounding me are kind, decent people, so that the sadness of the world is real to me, but distant. Parent, a cheerful, open Wisconsin boy, was like that before he went to New York City and became an emergency child rescue worker. Working with children at risk, children whose parents were drunk or crazy or addicted or almost too stupid to live, the meanness of the world came home to him. At the same time, he began to feel good about himself as a caretaker, a saver of children--until he blew it and failed to save a child. This caused a crisis in his life, a crisis resolved in part by the words of Mother Teresa, who, when asked if she didn't feel it was futile to save just a few children amid so many who were dying, replied that she wasn't doing her work to change the world, but to keep the world from changing her. Words to live by, for those unthanked Sisyphuses, endlessly pushing society's stone uphill. This was a remarkable book.
But hey, not everything I read was gloom and doom. Caroline Bird's Lives of Our Own: Secrets of Salty Old Women, is, I sincerely hope, my future. As one who looks forward to being a salty old lady, I found this book a rare treat--a chance to get inside the heads and lives of some really fascinating women. These women are artists, teachers, politicians, volunteers, writers. These are women who are fully, compellingly alive, brimming with energy, vigor, intelligence, concern and caring. Many of them have laid aside one life, and taken on new identities, as their children have grown up, they've retired from their jobs, or they've gone through divorce or death of a husband. The book reinforces my belief that, as women get older, they get more interesting. And I intend to be a LOT more interesting before I'm done. Like Janis Ian says, "this train still runs."
And, oh, yes, I did read some fiction, too. Actually, in the months before and after the move to the new library, when I kept waking up at 2 in the morning, thinking about 20 different problems, and how we might handle them, my mind was so hopeless unfocused and grasshoppery that I couldn't concentrate on anything even remotely demanding. So I read a lot of really good romances--I would have read murder mysteries, but they required way too much attention. (And just for the record, I highly recommend Linda Howard's romances, for when you need undemanding junk, with likable, intelligent people you can care about for a few hours, and a pleasant fantasy about happily-ever after.)
But once I was able to focus my attention again, I read Jon Katz's two most recent mysteries, The Last Housewife, and The Father's Club. Katz, now the media correspondent for The Netizen, is a former producer of the CBS morning news program, laid off during one of those absolutely predictable network housecleanings. I suspect that the life he led for a while after this career cataclysm was a lot like that of his hero, "suburban detective" Kit DeLeeuw, working part-time, trying to build a new career while his wife worked fulltime, and thus having to do a lot of the "housewife" chores--fixing meals, chauffering the kids here and there, making sure that homework got done and teeth got straightened and problems got listened to. At least that's the way I account for his extraordinary understanding of the day to day details of women's lives.
But whatever led him to this, Katz has clearly thought long and hard about the effects of feminism on the relationships between men and women, and this is evidenced in both these murder mysteries. In The Last Housewife, the suburb has changed, as more and more women have returned to work, leaving the few remaining housewives feeling under-respected, yet burdened with the chores "working women" don't have time for, and dump on them, including the care and attention that children continue to need. Into this politically charged environment comes a feminist principal, hell-bent to make an issue out of the sexual harassment of girls in school, ready to duke it out with "the last housewife," who is fighting to protect her son against these charges. When the principal is found murdered, and the weapon is found in the housewife's yard, she is charged with murder, and the community is divided. Only Kit is trying to find evidence that the woman is innocent.
In The Father's Club, Kit DeLeeuw starts by investigating why a man has stopped paying child support, and ends by trying to find out why he and his wife got murdered. In the meantime, he explores a lot of gender, family, and relationship issues with a great deal of intelligence, sensitivity, and the courage of his confusions.
As a regular reader of Katz as journalist, I am intrigued by the way he deals with some of the same social changes in two different voices. It's like the difference we librarians make when we assign the subject subdivisions --social aspects (meaning, what is the effect of something on society at large) and --psychological aspects (meaning, what is the effect of something on someone). His essays are broad, societal in focus; his novels are small, intimate, and personal. It's hard to say which I like better. But I assure you, Kit DeLeeuw's is a nice head to be inside of.
So, there you have it. Not the best of 1996, necessarily. But the books that made a dent in my philosophy, gave me a different angle on the world, made me into a different me than when I began the year.
And, incidentally, the great thing about the net is that it's interactive. I'd love to hear what books changed your life this year. Drop me a line, why don't you?
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.