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August 10, 1986|ALEX RAKSIN

Advertising: The Uneasy Persuasion, Michael Schudson (Basic: $8.95). All too many books about mass culture fall victim to a pattern that Michael Schudson says is characteristic of mass culture: Rather than adding new information to our stock of knowledge, the books reinforce what we already believe to be the case. This is not necessarily a "problem" in society as a whole, for as Schudson perceptively points out in this important and singular study, news, entertainment, advertising and other manifestations of culture help strengthen the social fabric by "re-minding us," by "making us focus": Like a man tying a string around his finger to remember to water the lawn, culture organizes and directs our attention. But, since academic studies are intended to help us escape cultural preconceptions, there is a problem with the profusion of books on advertising that simply tell us what we already know--namely that advertising associates a particular product with a prestigious person or romanticized life style. Schudson, a sociology and communications professor at UC San Diego, dispenses with such banality in his preface, moving on to esoteric questions ("Does the theater weaken democracy by demoralizing its citizens, as Rousseau argued?") and practical concerns about the effectiveness of advertising. Ads do influence retailers, children and people "in transitional states in their lives," Schudson concludes, but only to a negligible degree: Less than a quarter of TV viewers polled, for example, can remember an ad they saw the day before.

The Psychotherapy Maze: A Consumer's Guide to Getting In and Out of Therapy, Otto Ehrenberg Ph.D. and Miriam Ehrenberg Ph.D (Simon & Schuster: $6.95). If these authors are right, a pain in the sole might be sufficient to prompt a visit to the podiatrist, but a pain in the soul won't be enough to direct us to the right psychotherapist. Before seeking out therapy, write the authors, we need to find a therapist with an orientation that meets our needs, from (Alfred) Adlerians interested in inferiority complexes to (Carl) Rogerians stressing the importance of self-actualization. The authors don't evaluate the viability of psychotherapy itself, but they do offer helpful tips and sections on the therapy needs of special groups, such as ethnic minorities.

Prodigal Genius: The Life of Nikola Tesla, John J. O'Neill (Tesla Book Co., 1580 Magnolia Ave., Millbrae, Calif. 94030: $5.95). John J. O'Neill won a Pulitzer Prize for his science reporting, but in this work at least, he is far from impartial. O'Neill was a close friend of Nikola Tesla's, and his descriptions of the inventor glow with all of the ferocity of the Tesla Coil, a transformer producing the arcs of electricity often seen in Frankenstein films: "If other first-magnitude inventors and discoverers may be considered torches of progress," O'Neill writes, "Tesla was a conflagration." O'Neill's hyperbole, though, is a minor eccentricity that only adds to the flavor of this alluring profile of Tesla's developing mind, from early, ineffectual schemes to transport mail by water pressure through an Atlantic-Pacific Ocean tube to such grand successes as the power plant at Niagara Falls, radar and modern radio. O'Neill doesn't explore why Tesla's reputation is far less grand than his discoveries, but Tesla's character--far from that of a "distinguished scientist"--might explain part of the reason: He was unable to eat dinner at parties at which women wore pearls, for instance, and during thunderstorms, he was fond of lying on a couch near an open window, talking excitedly to himself.

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