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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

Critic Reviews

"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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  • Overall

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.

31 of 36 people found this review helpful

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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.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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that I would love to meet Susan Jacoby in person

I started this book thinking that I made a mistake in reading this one. The political leanings of the book seemed to be far to left for me. After a short time I realized that there is a little bit in this book for everybody to love and hate. Susan is left on social and political issues. I do believe that she gave very fair treatment to issues and, for the most part, she did not let her politics get in the way.

Susan covers a very large breadth of issues and she covers those issues deeply enough that the reader understands the issue and her point of view. She also makes an honest effort to represent issues from both sides to offer an intelligent argument. On occasion she simply fails, but when we talk about W. Bush how could we be expected not to chuckle over his knuckleheaded blunders with the English language. I want to reject her argument in these occasions, but I just in good conscience can’t.

Susan dedicates a lot of text to the general dumbing down of Americans. She talks about how many ways our society has deluded our educational system and expectations for our children. She offers a myriad of ways this dumbing down happens and how it manifests itself in a number of ways. She attacks the school system, she attacks the mainstream media. Susan gives well-rounded and insightful input. Susan introduced me to several new subjects including “chicklit” that I have never heard of.

I want to dislike this book and Susan’s politics. After finishing the book I simply can’t dislike the book, Susan’s politics or her. In fact she may have offered the smartest, well-conceived and intelligently articulated arguments for her beliefs that I have heard. She has given me ample reason to reassess my thoughts on several subjects and I find that I would love to meet her in person. I can think of no one else that I would like to engage on the topics listed in this book.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Tallman
  • San Francisco, CA, United States
  • 09-17-11

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

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“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.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Yau-Man
  • Martinez, CA, United States
  • 11-28-08

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."

9 of 14 people found this review helpful

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Arrogance and Opinion without Substance

I am pretty reliably liberal in my views and a firm believer in hard science over opinion. That being said, this is a book of pure opinion. Jacoby spends much of this book insulting those that might otherwise agree with her and preaching to the converted. I'm forcing myself to finish, but she doesn't have any of the academic credentials to back up some of her analysis and falls into the same traps that she rails against in this book. Its not her atheism that turns me off, I was able to digest Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens without any problem. I wanted to agree with her on many points, but I couldn't get past her arrogance and opinions passed off as analysis. There are plenty of other books out there that treat this information with an even hand. The War on Science by Shawn Otto was a much better read.

  • Overall
  • Francis
  • ChristianstedVirgin Islands, U.S.
  • 06-02-08

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."

3 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

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 3 people found this review helpful

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The most pedantic book I have ever read. Terrible

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

Individuals who enjoy a fictional book presented as informed commentary, which is based upon previous, biased opinion pieces of other authors and hastily interpreted statistical evidence.

What could Susan Jacoby have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?

She could have inserted less of her own commentary and focused more on the objective truths, to the extent that they exist, about our culture's trend of attitude towards intellectualism.

Would you be willing to try another one of Cassandra Campbell’s performances?

The speaker's performance was fantastic.

You didn’t love this book... but did it have any redeeming qualities?

In writing this, Jacoby illustrated the fact that individuals are capable of making a living by directly quoting others and loosely interpreting scholarly research to advance their own agenda of legitimizing their own perceived intellectual superiority.

Any additional comments?

The book is packed with ad hominem attacks against individuals with whom the author disagrees. The worst quality is that her endless "conclusions" are based upon premises which are opinions presented as fact.

Here's a gem: on pages eight and nine she refers to the colloquialism "I cried all the way to the bank," which was originally said by Liberace. She explains that a multi-media broadcaster misquoted this on air by saying "he laughed all the way to the bank" while discussing an athlete. Jacoby goes on to presume that an unidentified young child hears this misquotation and begins to use it in adulthood and pass it on to others as a "virus".

Jacoby performs mental gymnastics to conclude that individuals who say "laughed all the way to the bank" rather than "cried all the way to the bank" should all but be publicly shamed for their inability to say what they mean. NO, Jacoby, did you ever think that the broadcaster who said "laugh all the way to the bank" may have been original in creating his own colloquialism to mean something different such as that the athlete was gloating after an achievement?

Jacoby is so unfairly and unjustifiably judgmental that I found it difficult to endure her commentary in order to access the rare, but meaningful analyses that she does eventually provide. This is the first negative review I have ever written about a book, but it was so awful that I for me it was obligatory.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful