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October 25, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (Houghton Mifflin: $7.95). The pencil sketches of idyllic nature scenes that begin each chapter of this classic book might fly in the face of our own less-romantic encounters with pesky bugs and slithery worms. This is, no doubt, one reason why Carson had trouble finding a publisher for "Silent Spring," her classic warning against continued poisoning of the Earth with chemicals. After early chapters were published in "The New Yorker," Carson was lambasted as "an ignorant and hysterical woman who wants to turn the Earth over to the insects." Carson was, in fact, a marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who had never suggested that we abandon the battle against all bugs. What angered Carson was not so much the war but the tactics: "As crude a weapon as a cave man's club," she wrote, "the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life." Inevitably, there will be charges that Carson's message is no longer relevant today, long after DDT and other deadly pesticides have been banned. An afterword by a member of the Environmental Defense Fund was to have pointed out that significant ecological problems persist. Unfortunately, the publisher made a last-minute decision to omit the afterword, ultimately undermining Carson's cause. "Silent Spring" remains relevant, nevertheless, as a poetic depiction of a scientist's sensitivity to the interconnectedness of nature.

The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in Our Time, Marilyn Ferguson (Jeremy Tarcher: $10.95). Intriguing and confusing, the title encourages us to read on. We find no conspiracy, at least no deliberate plan, but rather Marilyn Ferguson's testimonial to having met a broad range of Americans who are "conspiring" in the root sense of the word, "to breathe together." At first, deciphering this New Age terminology will be slow going for those not already breathing in like fashion. But Ferguson's account is forwarded with such conviction that, by later chapters, it seems likely that her fellow conspirators (mostly educated, upwardly mobile Americans) are experiencing genuine personal and social changes, if not, as Ferguson proclaims, "the most rapid cultural realignment in history." Some of these changes are manifested in a New Age self-help movement that integrates the professional growth strategies of the 1950s (e.g., accelerated learning) with meditation and other self-awareness techniques of the '70s and mind-body healing from the East, such as guided imagery and holistic medicine. But mostly, this book posits that the "transformation" exists because people sense it exists "in classrooms, on TV, in print, in film, during coffee breaks, at parties."

Ferguson's ambiguous description of this transformation, while probably unintentional, seems wise, for "it" refers in good part to a philosophy often criticized these days: secular humanism. The rallying cries for the Aquarian Conspiracy are open-mindedness, acceptance, scientific achievement and the intermingling of East and West that is celebrated by cultural relativists. Ferguson writes, for example, about "the rise of pacific culture visionaries (who) tend to emphasize the future, ecology, high tech, inner development, cultural diversity, coalition, the joining of disciplines, and parallel spiritual truths." Ferguson is optimistic that the movement, "by integrating magic and science, art and technology, might succeed where all the king's horses and all the king's men failed." It is difficult, however, for readers not to hark back to the day when a similarly sanguine spirit prevailed at the Esalen Colony in Big Sur, which is now celebrating its 25th anniversary with the acknowledgment that its "worldwide transformation" failed to materialize. The new spirit optimistically portrayed in these pages is certainly energizing Ferguson's fellow travelers, but one doubts that it will transform them so that they will "learn to recognize chaos as an inevitable part of change" or "seek power only to disperse it."

The Media Monopoly, Ben H. Bagdikian (Beacon Press: $10.95). American journalists defend the wall of separation between the business and editorial side of their companies as fervently as secular humanists champion the separation between church and state. Advertising might determine the length of a journalist's presentation, most would say, but never the content. Thus, most journalists, while acknowledging the threats posed by lawsuits at home and repression abroad, aren't as concerned as Ben Bagdikian about the growing monopolization of the American mass media. In fact, some journalists would counter that large media chains are better able to fight libel suits, that media outlets large and small are beholden to the same public tastes, and that the strong-arm tactics of media owners dramatized in movies like "Citizen Kane" have fallen by the wayside.

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