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September 25, 2011

Sunday Book Thread

If you have a Kindle but, like me, are a cheapskate, you've probably been put off by the high cost of many of the books in Kindle format. Well, rejoice! 11,000 libraries nationwide will now allow Kindle users to borrow books. I expect this number to grow if the service takes off. I haven't tried it with my local library yet -- I have so many unread books in my queue right now I won't be done with them all until next year, at the rate I'm going. But this seems like a boon to folks who have a Kindle but either can't or don't want to buy certain books permanently.

My only book purchase in the past week was the dead-tree edition of Jaques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. This book is an exploration of how Western culture has become debased even as our science and technology has raced ahead over the past 500 years. I read this book a few years ago in hardcover, and decided it was time to revisit it.

I have to be careful with books like this because they tend to confirm my own prejudices too much (DOOM!). Yet it's important to step back and remember that our culture still produces wonderful things -- music, art, film, architecture, and so on. But it is perhaps an inevitable side-effect of mass communication and travel that the "lowest common denominator" kinds of culture tend to become the norm. Europe has been complaining for two centuries that Western culture has been "Americanized" (and it's not a compliment), and many Eastern cultures have expressed concerns that their domestic cultures are being subsumed under a Westernized overculture.

English is by far the most widespread language in the world (though not the most-spoken; Mandarin Chinese takes that honor). American and European films and music fill the world's multiplexes. The Western world produces the vast bulk of the world's printed matter and scientific research. And yet, for all this near-hegemonic control of the overculture, it does seem as though our cultural life has become coarsened over the years. I think some of this is simply historical amnesia (Opera was considered by many to be a low entertainment fit only for the rabble in its day, and "penny dreadful" serials were all the rage in London more than a century ago). What we call "Classical" music today was simply the popular music of yesteryear -- you can mount a case as to why Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" is no less culturally significant than Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. (Certainly Perry's work is far more widely listened-to these days.)

Culture and art are not permanent fixtures of human life. Tastes change, times change, our moral and ethical outlook changes. Perhaps we only know Great Art when it persists -- when it remains relevant through age after age. Perhaps this is why we still read The Iliad and The Odyssey even today; the themes and concepts in the works are universal, and expressed in such a way as to appeal to anyone, regardless of time or circumstance.

This is not to say that Barzun doesn't have many good points to make. I think it is patently true that the Western world has given up on making "Great Art"...mostly because it has also given up on religious faith and morality as an absolute value. It's hard to write a piece of music like "Ode to Joy", or paint something like the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, or write a book like Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, without a sincere belief in some higher ideal.

What's everyone else reading?

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posted by Monty at 09:42 AM

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