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272 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 2020
real temperament was technocratic and managerial, and the management of decadence - a "Don't do stupid [things]" approach to everything from financial capitalism and globalization, to China and the Middle East - was an essential feature of Obaman governance... Conservatives called it "managing decline", the left called it "neoliberalism"... [Obama] holds that it would be a good thing for the "managerial minority" to suppress populist revolts and rule from its creative-class enclaves and meritocratic hubs, because simply preserving our "fully grown" economy... is the most important task of statesmanship... for all its faults, our technocratic elite - the Romney-Republican variation as well as the Obamanauts - has strong incentives to make sure that our in many ways enviable situation lasts as long as possible and can be enjoyed by as many people as possible while it does.
I don’t know if it is dismal or delightful the extent to which the coronavirus debacle has not changed my life. The best article I’ve seen on CNN recommended, among other things, reading, making art, getting takeout, making recipes (cooking!) and bolstering one’s vocabulary for recreation. (“Read everything!”) This is exactly a description of my recreational activities already. Therefore, it is no surprise that in the age of coronavirus my life feels, more or less, exactly the same.
In any event, I have created a new shelf the-age-of-social-distancing to track the books I read during this time period, although I suspect it will be neither more nor less than usual, as times have changed, but I have not. I have a reliable account that social distancing is in effect the practice of introverts, shy people, and misanthropes alike so if anyone has any want or need of advice in these dark days we would be the ones to ask.
"Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992.
Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats, and cars were big and bulbous with late-modern fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it…
Go deeper, and you see that just 20 years also made all the difference in serious cultural output. New York’s amazing new buildings of the 1930s (the Chrysler, the Empire State) look nothing like the amazing new buildings of the 1910s (Grand Central, Woolworth) or of the 1950s (the Seagram, UN headquarters). Anyone can instantly identify a ’50s movie (On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai) versus one from 20 years before (Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night) or 20 years after (Klute, A Clockwork Orange), or tell the difference between hit songs from 1992 (Sir Mix-a-Lot) and 1972 (Neil Young) and 1952 (Patti Page) and 1932 (Duke Ellington). When high-end literature was being redefined by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, great novels from just 20 years earlier—Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth—seemed like relics of another age. And twenty years after Hemingway published his war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, a new war novel, Catch-22, made it seem preposterously antique.
Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a twenty-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even twenty years before that seem plausibly circa 2012.
… Not long ago in the newspaper, I came across an archival photograph of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with a dozen of their young staff at Morgans, the ur-boutique hotel, in 1985. It was an epiphany. Schrager’s dress shirt had no collar, and some of the hair on his male employees was a bit unfashionably fluffy, but no one in the picture looks obviously, laughably dated by today’s standards.… Yet if, in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examined a comparable picture from 27 years earlier— from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively—it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world..."