On Friday, The Times will award its annual Book Prizes in five categories--biography, history, fiction, poetry and current interest--along with the Robert Kirsch Award for a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the West. This week we publish excerpts from some of the books nominated in the category of current interest. Not excerpted, but also nominated, are: "Home: A Short History of an Idea" (Viking) by Witold Rybczynski, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" (Summit) by Oliver Sacks and "Arctic Dreams" (Scribner's) by Barry Lopez.
"Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public
Discourse in the Age of Show Business" (Viking) by Neil Postman.
Neil Postman is more chagrined than most of us when he hears TV newscasters say, "Now, this," for in that seemingly benign transition, he sees evidence of our growing fondness for fragmented thinking. Postman's notion that the message is determined by the medium harks back to Marshall McCluhan, but Postman is more distressed by the trend than McCluhan, for he believes TV's messages to be as evanescent as smoke signals, and "You cannot use smoke to do philosophy." Writing, on the other hand, "freezes speech," giving birth to "the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian (and) the scientist--all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading."
There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first--the Orwellian--culture becomes a prison. In the second--the Huxleyan--culture becomes a burlesque.
No one needs to be reminded that our world is now marred by many prison-cultures whose structure Orwell described accurately in his parables. If one were to read both "1984" and "Animal Farm," and then for good measure, Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon," one would have a fairly precise blueprint of the machinery of thought-control as it currently operates in scores of countries and on millions of people. Of course, Orwell was not the first to teach us about the spiritual devastations of tyranny. What is irreplaceable about his work is his insistence that it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right- or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship equally pervasive.
What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.
In America, Orwell's prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley's are well under way toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world's most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-19th Century and has now, in the latter half of the 20th, reached a perverse maturity in America's consuming love affair with television. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions. By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.
Those who speak about this matter must often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they are everything from wimps to public nuisances to Jeremiahs. But they do so because what they want others to see appears benign, when it is not invisible altogether. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. . . . But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture's being drained by laughter?
"Move Your Shadow: South Africa,
Black and White"
(Random House) by Joseph Lelyveld.