January 3, 2010

Currently Reading: The Age of American Unreason

I recently started reading The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, and while I am only a few chapters into it, I already love it. Honestly, I was hooked mid-way through the introduction. I really enjoyed Jacoby's earlier book, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, so I approached this one with high expectations. So far, I find myself enjoying it even more than the previous one.

Jacoby's writing style is a bit more sophisticated than many of the atheist-related books I have read, but she manages to be sufficiently engaging that I barely notice this. In fact, this is one of the few books I've read in the past year that causes me to lose time while I'm reading it. I tell myself that I am just going to read for 15 minutes and 45 pass before I realize it.

Not surprisingly, Jacoby discusses American evangelical fundamentalism as an important culprit in anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism. However, she goes well beyond this factor and examines the media's role in perpetuating an entertainment culture where video has replaced the written word and the attention spans of our children have diminished greatly.

What I like most about both of Jacoby's books is the historical perspective she brings. She traces the roots of anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism back to the earliest days of America and makes a compelling argument that these forces have been part of our heritage from the beginning. She demonstrates that widespread hostility to public education is nothing new in the U.S., especially in the South. I found her discussion of regional differences in fundamentalism and anti-rationalism particularly informative. Unlike many others I have read, she does not take the easy way out by attempting to blame Southern slavery for all such differences.

If you are looking for a good post-holiday read, The Age of American Unreason is an easy book to recommend. As I work my way through the book, I'll probably continue to share some insights here.