Monday, March 24, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE NEWS – A USER’S MANUAL” by Alain de Botton (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin Books, $NZ37)
Before I begin my gimlet-eyed analysis of the latest tome by pop-philosopher Alain de Botton let me pause, gentle reader, and do what I do very rarely. Let me consider the book as material artefact.
The News – A User’s Manual is a small square hardback volume with a tasteful art deco design on its dust jacket, and equally tasteful art deco (or are they art noveau?) endpapers. Under the dust jacket, the cover is green with a gold inlaid art deco design on the spine. The text of each of the volume’s 250-odd small square pages is set in tasteful Adobe Garamond typeface, except for the news stories that are quoted at the beginning of each section. They are set in Brandon Grotesque. In de Botton’s text, some key words and titles are printed in red type to stand out among the black type of the rest of the text. This, gentle reader, is (probably deliberately) reminiscent of antique fine editions, like those nineteenth century printings of the New Testament, which would set the ipsissima verba of Jesus in red type. As for the photographs, they are all printed in tasteful grainy black-and-white, as in the better art books.
So what, dear reader, does this physical object announce clearly, even before a single word of the text has been ingested?
It proclaims tastefulness. It tells you that this is a book for the quiet, thoughtful, cultured book-lover who, having read it, will deposit it reverentially on his or her shelf. It also tells you that it will be restrained, inoffensive, thoughtful, analgesic and will not upset your digestion or raise your blood pressure. In short, it warns you that it will be a bit of a pompous bore, and in so warning it announces quite accurately what the book’s contents are.
But let me not get ahead of myself.
Alain de Botton, familiar on the British telly, has spent the last decade explaining philosophy to the masses in a series of brief and best-selling tomes, and that is a noble and admirable task. Alas, though, whenever de Botton attempts to grapple with the really big questions, he becomes Mr Waffle. I do remember the TV series in which he examined Life’s Big Questions and ended by telling us to try to live “creatively” like the Bloomsbury Set. Ah yes. The life of the trust-funded flaneur, forsooth.
Oops. I am getting ad hominem. Let me get back to the book.
In The News – A User’s Manual De Botton’s theme is, obviously, the news as conveyed by the modern mass media, although he does quote almost exclusively from newspapers to make his points. Early in the piece, De Botton declares, with considerable justice, that the news has taken on canonical status:
“ In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly occupied by the faiths. Dispatches track the canonical hours with uncanny precision: matins have been transubstantiated [sic] into the breakfast bulletin, vespers into the evening report. But the news doesn’t just follow a quasi-religious timetable. It also demands that we approach it with some of the same deferential expectations we would once have harboured of the faiths. Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn what is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.” (p.11)
Further, the news is now the chief moulder of what most people’s conception of reality is:
“Once our formal education is finished, the news is the teacher. It is the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community beyond our own walls. It is the prime creator of political and social reality.” (p.12)
Given this sturdy set-up, then, one expects an analysis of the news media, an attempt to fathom how they work, what their economic bases are, what they do to attract their mass audience and how one can profitably de-construct them. In other words, a methodical critique. But alas, this is not what de Botton offers. Instead this volume is a collection of “life lessons” in which de Botton wants us to reflect on how the news can be used for self improvement and solace, regardless of its defects as commodity or intellectual matter. It does sound like a weekend “life skills” seminar, doesn’t it?
Each of the book’s brief essays is preceded by a news story from the different genres on offer. Political story. Natural disaster story. Celebrity gossip story. Weather story. War story etc. After each such article, de Botton first considers how the story has been artificially constructed from factual material, to mould it into the expected shape. Then he tries to tell us how we can learn from the story if only we decode it properly; and how we can apply those lessons to our lives.
Now I would be very dishonest if I did not admit that de Botton can come up with the odd, interesting apercu. There is, for example, his suggestion that news of dreadful things feeds that frustration created by the assumption of human perfection:
“In its thwarted optimism, the news is the disillusioned progeny of the Enlightenment. Refusing to square with human nature, it allows our hopes to smash constantly against the same shoals; it greets every new day with faux cherubic innocence, only to stoke up rage and disillusionment at our condition by nightfall. It posits the potential existence of a perfect world, which is forever almost within reach but then curiously slips out of grasp at every step of the political process. It doesn’t do us the favour of conceding that in many respects we are a fundamentally – rather than incidentally – incorrigible species and that we would at key moments be wise to forgo hysterical annoyance for deep and quiet melancholy.” (p.56)
Once or twice, de Botton does tiptoe up to the matter of how uniform the mass media are in covering the same events (had he pushed his investigation further in this matter, he would have come close to the heart of what is wrong with the news media):
“We should at least be somewhat suspicious of the way that news sources, which otherwise expend considerable energy advertising their originality and independence of mind, seem so often to be in complete agreement on the momentous question of what happened today.” (p.73)
He is interesting when he considers the work of editors in choosing photographs for newspapers, where there is a clear distinction between images designed merely to confirm what the text is saying and images designed to tell a story of their own. He is enjoyable when he notes the decontextualization of facts in so many news stories and (quoting many sensational headlines from the Daily Mail) how easy it is to create a sense of insecurity or unease in readers and viewers by such decontextualization. Again, he touches upon, but does not develop, a sound idea when he notes how the plethora of facts we are now given by the news media work better than any censorship could in completely disorienting readers and viewers and preventing them from ever being able to conceptualise essential issues. I found de Botton to be at his best in the section headed “Baddies and the Bad”, where he speaks of journalists still operating on the “Watergate paradigm” and imagining they are fearless investigators bringing the powerful and corrupt to account; BUT in fact by concentrating on the failings of individual politicians and other wielders of power, journalists usually fail to address what is systemically wrong with society and its political systems. The worst form of such political reporting is what de Botton calls “gaffe” journalism, where much ink is spilt and air time devoted to publicising politicians’ misstatements or slips of the tongue or minor misdemeanours as if these are matters of huge import. This is merely a form of ritual humiliation.
Thus, you can see, in my spirit of impeccable fairness, I have noted de Botton’s ability to say some things worth saying. But then I, literary amateur that I am, also note de Botton’s alienating frames of reference.
His little book quotes the likes of Flaubert and George Eliot and William Carlos Williams and Auden and Aristotle and Dostoievsky, as if de Botton is afraid that we will not take him seriously without such cultural heavyweights. And when he suggests “remedies” for the defects of the news, his solutions are high-minded and idealistic to the point of being quite unrealistic.
Item – when he discusses World News, de Botton asks why most news sites gain many times more readers or viewers for local trivia stories (footballer’s affair with model; royal baby born etc.) than they do for grave and weighty foreign news stories (famines, wars etc.). He answers that it is because we do not know or identify with the people involved in the foreign news, as the news services do not engagingly serve us the “normality” of foreign lives. So what is de Botton’s solution to this problem? He says that there should be more writing in the press like the lush nineteenth century travel writing that raised people’s sense of wonder at foreign places and the exotic things they had to offer. And to experience the “normality” of a culture alien to him, he then travels to Uganda to soak up its everyday life.
Somehow, I do not see these stratagems as solving the problem.
Or again, after admitting that most Economic News is either incomprehensible to the average reader, or is really tips for investors, he offers this rather utopian argument:
“Businesses should be honoured as among the most humanly important organizations on the planet which deserve to have their adventures, prevarications, deceits, passions and sufferings carefully described and powerfully evoked with all the intensity and aesthetic skill that might accompany the narration of a love affair. It is only an accident of culture that still leads us to expect that ‘human interest’ is something best found in someone’s private life rather than at the factory line, the supply chain or the office cubicle.” (p.144)
So we will understand economies if they are written up in terms of “human interest” stories?
Again, I say “Really!?” And add a fervent “Yeah, right.”
De Botton uses the much-criticised genre of the “celebrity interview” to remind us that there is a deep human impulse to admire, and emulate, the deeds of exemplary human beings. He proves this (his High Culture ostentatiously on display again) by discussing the civic heroes who were admired by the ancient Greek city-states or the saints who are set up as models of virtue by the Catholic Church. So, he asks, could not celebrity interviews be re-cast to emphasize civic virtues? (pp.157-166)
Again, dear reader, I murmur a fervent “Yeah, right”.
Then, when talking of the fundamental envy of celebrities, which most readers harbour, de Botton he goes all contemptus mundi on us by telling us what we should really think of media-publicised celebrities and their “achievements”:
“In contrast to what the news suggests, most businesses in fact fail, most films don’t get made, most careers are not stellar, most people’s faces and bodies are less than perfectly beautiful and almost everyone is sad and worried a lot of the time. We shouldn’t lament our own condition just because it doesn’t measure up against a deeply unrealistic benchmark, or hate ourselves solely for our inability to defy some breathtaking odds.” (p.174)
As for sensational stories of murder, sexual violence, sudden and violent death etc., the mainstay of both tabloids and broadsheets, de Botton speaks of making such coarse tragedies edifying and morally improving like the classic Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides et al (pp.192 ff.). His reflections get briefer, more superficial and more platitudinous as we get passages on weather reports and the “culture” pages of newspapers. And on the last page of his text (p.255) he is literally counselling us to “rise above” it all by looking down on the news and the world in general as matters of little ultimate concern.
Believe me, I do not necessarily disagree with all of de Botton’s perspective, and his admonitions that we not accept unthinkingly the news, as it is presented to us, on its own terms. But throughout this book I hear too often that quietism, which is intended to place the reader hors de combat as if he or she is not part of the same culture that produces the news. OF COURSE our news media are superficial, given to the promotion of stereotypes and clichés, filled with editorial agendas posing as impartiality, distracting from essential issues by their insistence on trivia, gossip and “celebrity” stories; and constantly “band-wagoning” – that is, playing up the same stories and issues in unison at the same time for lack of a really critical sense of proportion.
I hoped (naively?) that all thinking readers and viewers already understood this.
But to tell us to stand back from it all, in Olympian fashion, is really to place us at a distance from that vulgar herd who ingest the news. It is also to avoid the hard work of analysing WHY the (despicable, vulgar and generally superficial) news media nevertheless have such huge mass appeal.
When de Botton tells us to respond to the news media by thinking of nineteenth century travel writing, of Flaubert’s ironical dictionary of received wisdom, or of the civic heroes of the ancient Greek city-states, I am reminded of Alexei Sayle’s comedy sketch alluding to intellectuals who thought they could “improve” the working class by getting them to like the art of William Morris. And I am reminded of de Botton’s admiration for the Bloomsberries. And I am thinking of the huge implied distance between us, my dear, and hoi polloi. And I am thinking of tastefulness and wishing I had read a more robust book about the news media.