Sunday, September 06, 2009

Reading at Random

We don't have a TV and I seldom go to movies, but I read a lot, often two or three books a week.

When go to the library, I try to choose a variety of books: one whose author I've heard interviewed on the radio, one someone has recommended, a mystery (for relaxation), fiction, history, biography, art. But I may also pick up at random a book that catches my eye as I walk through the stacks. (The enormous value of open stacks!) One thing leads to another. When reading one book, if another book is cited, I may write that down and look for it the next time I'm at the library. Thus I often read a short sequence of related books

This summer, "The Fifties" by David Halberstam, was the last unread book in the batch from the libaray. It is very thick, and looked like it might take awhile to read. But once I got started, I couldn't stop. The decade of the 1950s is the first decade I remember well. For the first time, the book provided me with a context for all the names, events, trends and fragments from my teenage years. It verified what I'd vaguely felt, that life in America changed a lot after World War II.

Many aspects of our present-day American culture had their beginnings in the 1950s and are still with us: consumerism, corporate greed, the credit economy (more realistically called the debt economy), energy consumption. Other aspects of the culture have changed a lot since then: much improved (but still not perfect) gender and racial equality, information technology, ecological awareness.

Once started on this sequence, I also read "The Feminine Mystique" by Betty Friedan, "How Rich is Too Rich" by Vance Packard, and a biography of J. Edgar Hoover. Then I was ready to change to a different topic, so I picked up "Acedia and Me" by Katherine Norris, a book relating one aspect of medieval spirituality to the author's life. But a funny thing happened. This book had a surprising relationship to "The Feminine Mystique". Friedan felt that all educated housewives should get out of the house, and engage in a demanding, professional career for the good of society. Norris found spiritual nourishment in the daily routine of household tasks. Each author represents an extreme view, formed by opposite personalities living in very different life circumstances.

All this is fascinating to me and provides a certain perspective, but I've lived long enough to feel comfortable with having lived my life on my terms.

Now I'm reading about the Cranbrook Academy, a community of artists, architects and craftspersons whose design philosophy influenced the arts education I experienced in the late 1950s. So I'm inadvertently back to mid-century!


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