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The Age of American Unreason | [Susan Jacoby]

The Age of American Unreason

Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Susan Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon - one that is at odds with our heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge and science. With mordant wit, Jacoby surveys an antirationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of "junk thought".
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Publisher's Summary

Combining historical analysis with contemporary observation, Susan Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon - one that is at odds with our heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge and science. With mordant wit, Jacoby surveys an antirationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of "junk thought".

Disdain for logic and evidence defines a pervasive malaise fostered by the mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and the left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public.

Jacoby offers an unsparing indictment of the American addiction to infotainment - from television to the Web - and cites this toxic dependency as the major element distinguishing our current age of unreason from earlier outbreaks of American anti-intellectualism and antirationalism.

With reading on the decline and scientific and historical illiteracy on the rise, an increasingly ignorant public square is dominated by debased media-driven language and received opinion.

At this critical political juncture, nothing could be more important than recognizing the "overarching crisis of memory and knowledge" described in this impassioned, tough-minded book, which challenges Americans to face the painful truth about what the flights from reason has cost us as individuals and as a nation.

©2008 Susan Jacoby; (P)2008 Tantor

What the Critics Say

"Smart, well researched, and frequently cogent." (The New York Times)
"Electric with fearless interpretation and fueled by passionate concern...brilliant, incendiary, and, one hopes, corrective." (Booklist)

What Members Say

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  •  
    T. Andrew Poehlman New Haven... but I wish I was home in Seattle, WA 07-15-08
    T. Andrew Poehlman New Haven... but I wish I was home in Seattle, WA 07-15-08 Listener Since 2006

    Andy from Kent

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    "Interesting, but explanation by redescription"

    So, what did I learn from this book?

    1) A lot of facts about stuff that has happened in America. Interesting enough.

    2) I have heard a defense of middle-brow morals from the late 50s and early 60s which was pretty compelling (although, it is not coincidental these are the morals with which Jacoby was raised).

    3) That the Beatles aren't as good as Chopin (for which there is never a cogent argument besides that "it's obvious" or "Paul Simon doesn't think he's a poet").

    4) And that TV is evil and has ruined our society (maybe to some extent, but is that really explaining anything? The question is why has it made us anti-intellectual vs. the Europeans).

    I would have to say the anti-Beatles argument really sums up the weak points of this book. While its strengths are in its recitation of the intellectual history of America, its weaknesses are that it usually just hinges on, "well, come on, the Beatles are pop music, not as good as classical, come on!" It's not particularly moving as an argument, frankly.

    That Jacoby can never separate her own personal tastes for the intellectual life (NPR, Russian Literature and wine and cheese) from her story about why America has been dumbed down to an almost comical level is a true shame. Because even though the topic could be a fascinating explanation of what's gone wrong with American minds, the book reads more like a personal indictment of things Jacoby doesn't like. Right-wing neocons? Yup she doesn't like 'em. Academic politics? She doesn't like 'em (and boy does she go on about it!). Pop culture? She doesn't like it.

    In sum, it's very well read and very interesting, but never goes beneath a surface level of vitriol against the intellectual life to which Jacoby clearly aspires.

    22 of 26 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tallman San Francisco, CA, United States 09-17-11
    Tallman San Francisco, CA, United States 09-17-11 Member Since 2008
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    "Great book; poor reader"

    This is a wonderful book about American anti-intellectualism, but as often seems to be the case, the reader is a problem. Particularly for a book about the decline of learning and respect for erudition in America, it is important that the reader make the effort to learn unfamiliar words in preparation for recording. The sort of person likely to read this book is also likely to be jarred by the many mispronunciations: William Shirer's last name contains a long "I," Lord Elgin's a hard "g," Alfred Kazin's is pronounced "KAY-zin," not "kazz'n," there is no "n" in the final syllable of "pundit," and Oscar Wilde wrote "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which is not, in fact, a misprint for "goal." These are but a few of the errors I have heard without yet completing the first half of the audiobook. There is a certain irony in a book by the brilliant Susan Jacoby being butchered thus, more or less making the very point of which she writes.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Yau-Man Martinez, CA, United States 11-28-08
    Yau-Man Martinez, CA, United States 11-28-08 Member Since 2008
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    "Great book - must read for all College students"

    I bought is book - read it then bought the audio version to listen to it again during my commute, which prompted me to re-read the book again. Great work by Ms Jacoby. I recommend this book very highly. However, the narration is marred by a few very gross and obvious pronunciation errors which reinforces the author's case for the dumbing down of America. btw, the admin building in UC Berkeley, Sproul Hall is pronounce as "sprowl", to ryhme with the barn bird "owl."

    8 of 13 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 09-29-14
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 09-29-14 Member Since 2007

    Chet Yarbrough, an audio book addict, exercises two cocker spaniels twice a day with an Ipod in his pocket and earbuds in his ears. Hope these few reviews seduce the public into a similar obsession but walk safely and be aware of the unaware.

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    "KNOWING LESS ABOUT MORE"

    “The Age of American Unreason” interests baby boomers because it capsules events of the pig-in-a-python‘ era (babies born between 1946 and 1964). Susan Jacoby’s characterization of this era as “The Age of American Unreason” is a failed argument because of over generalization.

    Literary education is unquestionably different today than when Ms. Jacoby graduated from college but different is neither good nor bad; i.e. literary education from Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Charlotte Bronte, Pearl Buck and other literary giants is still being consumed by the public. New authors like Katherine Stockett, Salman Rushdie, Yann Martel, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, or Aravind Adiga, are among many newer intellectual writers. The medium may be different but the message is the same (after all, Jacoby’s book is available through audio books and e books). To suggest that the classics are not being read, understood, or appreciated today is a distortion of reality. How many literary themes have been replayed on the stage and screen? Where did the playwright or filmmaker get his or her idea?

    Who would argue that science is not advancing? The intellectual advance of quantum mechanics, cosmology, and the science of man is astounding. Philosophy is grounded on advances in Science; with continued research there will be future philosophical intellectuals like Plato, Spinoza, and William James; in fact, they are probably here now but not with history’s perspective. The frightful truth of 21st century is that there is so much knowledge available that the biggest threat to intellectualism is knowing less and less about more and more.

    Susan Jacoby is a highly sought after writer and speaker. One admires her reputation as a liberal but liberality is not a license to write junk thought.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    J. D. Portnoy Sarasota, FL USA 03-18-13
    J. D. Portnoy Sarasota, FL USA 03-18-13 Member Since 2012

    Bookman Old Style

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    "A very bad match!"

    Susan Jacoby's book is intelligent, thought-provoking, and worthy of anyone's time. However, the reader, Cassandra Campbell, was the worst possible choice to narrate this text, because she is unable to pronounce many, many names, as well as ordinary words. She is a perfect parody of everything Jacoby is trying to say, albeit the irony was surely not intended. To cite just one of her many gaffes, at once point she pronounces the name "Kristol," referring to Irving Kristol, as "ChrysTAL," as in the alcoholic beverage. This very good book deserves to be recorded again by someone better educated than this reader. Listen to the book if you have a strong tolerance for the ignorant.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Chi-Hung Riverside, CA, USA 05-19-09
    Chi-Hung Riverside, CA, USA 05-19-09 Member Since 2007
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    "An amusing cultural polemnic"

    Susan Jacoby sounds alarms embeded in American post-post modern culture. She made an arrays of political polemnics, some more convincing than others, I am curious what her opinion would be if i listen to her book instead of reading it, some of her pessimism can be exaggerated, for example, her fear over the internet and email downgrading reading ability. But it's always fun to Bush bash once in a while, and USA public do need to be more educated in cosmopolitanism.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Francis ChristianstedVirgin Islands, U.S. 06-02-08
    Francis ChristianstedVirgin Islands, U.S. 06-02-08
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    "Terrible Narrator"

    This book isn't bad, though it's marred by factual errors (John Paul II succeeding Paul VI, for example). But the narrator is awful. Anyone who narrates a book largely about intellectual concepts ought to learn how to pronounce them. Among the atrocities were "Aesthetic Communism" and "Cell Stem Research."

    2 of 5 people found this review helpful
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    Carl 10-31-13
    Carl 10-31-13
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    "Uneven"
    Any additional comments?

    This book is uneven in that it often hits the mark but is sometimes wildly off target. For example, I am puzzled by the author's impassioned denunciation of e-books as a symptom of intellectual decay.

    The reader was reasonably good but made at least a dozen slips of the tongue that should have been corrected in the production process. For example she said, "FARMERS of the Constitution" instead of "FRAMERS of the Constitution." This type of error is especially notable in an audiobook lamenting a loss of rigor in public discourse.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    michael EAST PEORIA, IL, United States 07-07-11
    michael EAST PEORIA, IL, United States 07-07-11 Member Since 2005

    vancholland77

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    "Kind of a scatter shot writing technique"

    The book was an interesting listen because the lady puts out some interesting ideas, plus it is sort of nostalgic listening to a book that was delivered in the waning days of the G.W. Bush presidency, the end of an era so to speak, but the problem is that it is so scatter shot and non-coherent. If she could have stuck to an issue such as neo-conservative right wing religiosity of the last 25 years and the detriment it has caused to our democracy, wrote about it and then moved on to classical liberalism and the great thinkers and books that Americans used to read, and then moved on to how Americans have shortened attention spans. At any rate the book could have been better organized that it was. There is a lot here and there were some good ideas that were touched on, but the lady never goes beyond the surface of what subject she is talking on and then she attempts to loosely tie the subjects together. Honestly she needs to learn how to write books in the popular non-fiction genre. She needs to learn how to organize her books.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Alicia Czechowski Baltimore Maryland 06-04-08
    Alicia Czechowski Baltimore Maryland 06-04-08 Member Since 2008
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    "Tha Age of American Unreason According to Jacoby"

    This book was an overlong exercise in axe-grinding. Current problems (social, political, ethical) were cited over and over again without adding new information or offering real suggestions for implementing practical change. Jacoby expresses personal bias on various trivial topics to no purpose whatever, further obscuring the raison d'etre of this book. In addition, the narrator of this book regularly erred in her pronunciation.

    4 of 17 people found this review helpful
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