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Nonfiction in Brief

THE AUTOMOBILE AGE by James J. Flink (The MIT Press: $25)

May 01, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Hold onto your Honda, for this author predicts that nuclear, solar and electric fuel cell cars will be in the dream stage for at least the next decade and a half. James Flink's vision of the steady road ahead stands in dramatic contrast with the frenzy and flux at the beginning of the automobile age, when people who could afford it were riding in horse-drawn omnibuses (1850s), horse cars running on fixed rails (1860s), cable cars (1870s), electric streetcars (1890s) and steam cars (1900s). Beginning in the 1910s, when Ford's Model T convinced the public that the internal combustion engine was the ticket to ride, Flink constructs a detailed history of how unions, wars, legislation and the domestic economy have shaped the car and how the car, in turn, has shaped society.

While Flink teaches comparative culture at UC Irvine, he focuses on cars as they're seen in Detroit--a product of industry and technology--rather than as they're seen in Los Angeles--a vital part of culture. Instead of studying video-displayed road maps and other computer innovations that will directly affect drivers, for instance, Flink contemplates marvels under the hood: "It is estimated," Flink writes, "that it would take a person with a hand calculator about 45 years to perform the calculations that the Ford EEC-IV computer, used to control engines on about two thirds of its 1984 Ford cars, performs each minute." This emphasis on engineering and business seems to be the result of Flink's decision to build a book around objective, statistical data, unlike his 1975 book, "The Car Culture," which relied more heavily on personal interviews. Thus Flink doesn't study problems that can't be quantified, such as the difficulty of introducing mass transit to a society in which the car has become a kind of secondary home for commuters, an important dimension in their social lives.

Similarly, Flink rules out the car's role in making Los Angeles "a collection of suburbs in search of a city." Railroads, he writes, established the vast grid that is Greater Los Angeles and brought in a flood of farmers, tourists and fortune-seekers. (One suspects Flink is letting the car off too easily here, for the Pacific Electric line created satellite towns but didn't dissolve the urban center.) Still, Flink does profile the more widely accepted social changes brought by automotive technology, from the mechanization of agriculture (which made the family farm obsolete) to the liberation of women from the confines of home (they went from producers of food and clothing to consumers of prepared foods and ready-made clothes). And what "The Automobile Age" lacks in social analysis it makes up for in original, interpretive business reporting.

THE PASSIONS OF MEN Work and Love in the Age of Stress by Mark Hunter G.P. Putnam's: $18.95) While quieter than the women's liberation movement in the last decade, a men's liberation movement has been gathering momentum in the 1980s, apparent in a rush of books exploring the newly pervasive male fear of being, to put it bluntly, a wimp. Interestingly, the men in these books are trying to liberate themselves from the same attitude that oppressed women in the 1970s: male chauvinism. Chauvinism survived the sexual revolution, Hunter astutely realizes, for while self-help books celebrate the nurturing, sensitive family man, society still casts a stigma on men who show dependence or seem unambitious. Writing with an honest, heart-on-the-sleeve style that's a refreshing alternative to the often authoritarian tone of self-help books, Mark Hunter, an American journalist living in Paris, offers an old-fashioned but seemingly sensible solution in these pages: Men must have the courage to measure themselves "from the inside out instead of the other way around."

On second thought, though, if American society is as he depicts it, then it might be foolish for men to adopt the solutions he offers. Overworking, for example, one of the masculine traits that Hunter decries, actually may be a grimly realistic way of fending off the prospects of downward mobility that confront so many young professionals. "The Passions of Men" is better than most self-help books for men because of Hunter's personal approach and sharp analysis. In general, however, these books seem less efficacious than their feminist counterparts, which powerfully affirmed, even mystified, sisterhood, helping women recognize an inner strength. Recent books for men have found little in masculinity to celebrate, pointing out, as E. M. Forster did in Howards End," that "Man is . . . heedless of the growth within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam engine."

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