Source of book: borrowed from the library
Date originally posted to Facebook: January 25, 2011
I am gradually re-posting my old Facebook reviews to my blog. This book, which I read over two years ago, remains the weirdest book I have ever reviewed, and one of the weirdest that I have ever read.
This is, without doubt, an unusual book. It is put together from a
series of essays written by the late Mr. Trow and published in The New
Trow’s central thesis is that television has
removed context and what he terms the “middle distance” from society,
and has left it in the state of “no context”. While Trow never really
defines the “middle distance”, he contrasts it with the extremes:
intimacy and what he calls the “grid of 200 million”, that is, the
population of the United States. Thus, people interacted with their
intimate friends and relatives, and had the semblance of national life,
centering around discussion of what was on television, but there was now
missing the context in between.
In Trow’s view, the first
step was the removal of history as context, and its replacement by
demographics. Perhaps we would call this “market segmentation” these
days. Television (and advertising) break us up into targeted blocks
having demographics in common.
Secondly, adulthood became
irrelevant. In the view of demographics, the preferences of a child were
equally (or more) important that those of an adult. There was no longer
a need to learn how to be an adult because perpetual childhood sold
goods just as well. Nothing was judged any longer, only counted.
this led to was a lack of any real sense of authority. Of course, this
vacuum led to attempts to create authority, but only authority of a
particular kind: that which gives a sense of comfort but doesn’t give a
sense of inhibition.
The book is divided into two sections. The first bears the title of the book itself. The second is titled Within that Context: One Style.
The first section deals specifically with the concepts I outlined above
by short (often one sentence) paragraphs interspersed with longer
narratives. The writing is elliptical and occasionally seems to float
right out of context itself. As it goes on, however, it leads into
extended discussions of People Magazine, celebrity in general, and a few
specific instances. This section culminates in an extended, rambling
story about the World’s Fair, at which Trow worked during his college
The second section is a bit longer than the first,
and is nothing like it. Trow spends this entire section discussing Ahmet
Ertegun, the principal figure at Atlantic Records. In this narrative,
Trow discusses his dealings with Ertegun and his artists, including The
Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Trow’s point is to
illustrate the culture of celebrity through the disconnected, rambling
events experienced. I admit that I had a harder time with this section.
Trow certainly dropped enough familiar names, but the nuances of the
music business feel like they would be better placed in a story with
that theme rather than one addressing a broad theme of culture.
Returning to the first section, which I feel was more on point; I was
amazed at how Trow’s vision of television culture seemed to describe
2010, rather than 1981, when the book was published. Reality television,
American Idol, and the rest demonstrate his theory that television
would lead to everyone seeking the status of celebrity. One wonders what
Trow would have thought had he lived to see it.
that I am a bit like Trow at heart. My family when I was growing up
refused to purchase cable, and gradually watched less and less
television. From age 16 until I married, I didn’t even connect my set to
“rabbit ears” to get the local broadcasts. Even now, I like my sports,
but I haven’t really felt like spending the time to watch stuff. (I
confess to having a Food Network and Mythbusters habit while on
I guess that all makes me a hidebound reactionary, old before my time. Or something like that. I prefer my books.
wouldn’t consider this book to be a light read, but it does have its
page turning moments. The World Fair narrative was a particularly
engaging section. I probably will remember the concept of the decline of
adulthood the most, however. If my practice of law has caused me to
think anything, it is that most of us have regressed to the point of
banging on our high chairs, unable to look beyond our own desires,
unwilling to become adults. Unwilling particularly to accept an
authority which causes a sense of inhibition.