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The Age of American Unreason  By  cover art

The Age of American Unreason

By: Susan Jacoby
Narrated by: Cassandra Campbell
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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
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History

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 listeners say about The Age of American Unreason

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

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.

35 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Assault by Narrator

This is a brilliant book, written by a knowledgeable and truly educated author. However, the intellectual poverty of the narrator ,Casssandra Campbell, makes the point of the book only too apparent. She is not qualified to read anything beyond the young adult level, because she is totally ignorant of literature. I cringed many times while listening to her displaying her talents. The best example was her murder of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol by pronouncing it “the ballad of reeding gole.” If you’re able to tolerate this and you’re truly interested in what has happened to our country, this is a book not to be missed.

11 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

A bigot

Jacoby laments that she finds herself preaching to the choir; on her speaking tours. It is easy to see why. Her scholarship is shoddy, her conclusions shallow and her dialogue demeaning and snide.

The book is full of her prejudices. In one memorable passage she makes an invidious comparison between Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, she states, is a greater genius for while Franklin matured in a reading environment Lincoln did not. BAD equals the bigoted, slave owner Southerner; Christians, all of whom are, at heart, fundamental irrationalists; people who do not read the same books she reads, anyone who questions scientific conclusions (even if they don't know what they are) or follows pseudo science and most importantly, anyone who does not adhere to atheism, progressivism, liberalism and Communism. On the other hand GOOD is anyone who reads, preferably the books she enumerates ad nauseum, and whoever happens to live in the North, preferably Massachusetts, particularly Boston and specifically has attended Harvard.

After excoriating Christians as narrow minded and mean spirited, she launches into her own invective and leftist moral judgments. Her morality, however, is not based on experience but rather on what she has read. It appears her entire existance is defined by the books she has read.
This book lacks any originality; rather it regurgitates second and third hand sources. She often refers to Evolution (with a capital E) as the dividing line between the elite and low-brow troglodytes. I never got the sense she ever read Darwin's Origin of Species and if she had whether she understood it. It is apparent she reached her conclusions before embarking on research; every author and statistic she cites, mainly the obscure, agree with her.
I have to infer that even her own personal experiences are meaningless unless validated by someone else.

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars

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 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars

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.

6 people found this helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars

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.

4 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

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.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

More Unreason

To truly answer the slant in this book would take a book as well. Toward the beginning of the book is a perfect example of Susan's unreason. When speaking about what is said, one needs to use the meaning intended by those that said it, otherwise it is impossible to come to a accurate, reasoned conclusion about it. She launches into a section in which she is talking about conservatives speaking derisively about the "intellectual elite". While anyone even vaguely acquainted with that phrase and it's use knows that it's not being used to say that those referred to are literally intellectually elite, but that those referred to think they are intellectually elite, Susan take the phrase literally and claims it to be an example of Republicans and conservatives being anti-intellectual and anti-education.

Susan appears to have learned her public school science very well, but sadly, it appears she stopped there. Although the book appears to have been written after a large trial in which the issue was whether evidence that contradicts the theory of evolution should be required to be taught in public schools, she fails to mention that trial, instead presenting evolution as if there was no evidence that contradicts it, then equating it to the law of gravity, if memory serves. She claims that if public education was better, no one would doubt evolution. I would contend that if public education were better, taught the contradictions to the theory and scientific method better, as well as pointed out how much of the "evidence" relies on assumptions, evolution would have been discarded long ago.

Yes, there have been those associated with Christians who have had a bad view of education, but that view is from a very small minority and there are those whose lives have no time for God that hold the same view. She quotes the typical claims of the founding fathers of this country not being Christians, but their own writings refute that claim.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars

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 people found this helpful

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    5 out of 5 stars

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.

2 people found this helpful