6 Books That Explain Culture Through the Ages to 2017

Desi Arnaz, Lucille Ball, William Frawley, and Vivian Vance in “I Love Lucy” (1951)/Photo by Pictorial Parade © 2010 Getty Images

While the word “culture” is a common one – often used as a shortcut to refer to the artistic productions from the fields of literature, visual art, film, television, music, and theater – it is also a term with a complex etymology and a contested history. In 2014, the folks at Merriam-Webster declared “culture” its “Word of the Year,” a dubious honor usually bestowed on words and neologisms that signal in a particular year what was in the news and what distracted us from that news. These were words like “selfie,” or “blog,” “truthiness,” or “bailout.”

But in 2014, the word “culture,” certainly not a new word, became the term for which users of Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary felt compelled to seek meaning. In that year, Americans felt discomfort around a previously familiar word, and found themselves checking its meaning in order to figure out if there was something they were missing.

In fact, as students of anthropology or intellectual history can attest to, “culture” has never been a comfortable term. The cultural critic, Raymond Williams, assembled a dictionary he called Keywords, and “culture” requires several pages of dense prose to unpack. Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is to contrast it with another familiar word, “civilization.” For nineteenth-century German theorists who were trying to distinguish the relationship between culture and civilization, the difference came down to the idea that civilization was the set of rules and rational understandings of how society should work. Culture, on the other hand, was the spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual “developments that represent and sustain” that society. While the short cut of thinking of culture as art works, it also means in a more general sense the ways of thinking about things that characterize a society – as opposed to the laws that establish its civilization.

So, the conclusion we can draw is that in 2014 when people felt compelled to look up the word “culture,” something was happening at the level of the ways that Americans think about themselves.

Several new books explore various facets of culture in its larger sense. Even those books that look at a specific form of artistic production, such as what’s on television, do so in the sense of asking questions about the artistic values of the television shows under consideration, but also what those shows may have reflected back to us about the cultural questions with which society was grappling during the shows’ tenures.

  • The cover of the book Little Boxes: Twelve Writers on Television

    Little Boxes: Twelve Writers on Television

    Twelve well-known writers who are known for their work in other genres besides television criticism offer individual essays about the impact that a particular show had upon them. Many of the shows (“Northern Exposure,” “Twin Peaks,” “The Cosby Show,” “My So-Called Life,” for example) date from the 1980s and 1990s, which reflects the fact that because writers were asked to write about their “influences,” they chose shows they were watching during their childhood and adolescence, thus revealing that while the writers are drawn from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities, they are all approximately in the same twenty-year generation.

    The power of streaming, however, means that for younger readers, the shows are available to view now, and those who watched those same shows through the lens of being an adult at the time will enjoy the nostalgia. What makes their observations powerful is that because adult writers are now reflecting back on shows they watched as children, the reader benefits from layers of analysis: not only what the show meant then and what it means now, but also the locating of the show in the stories of their families, and how, with the passage of time, that may evoke uncomfortable feelings felt by a lot of us.

    Consider V. V. Ganeshananthan’s memoir of the similarities between his dad and a famous TV dad who his family gathered to watch: “My father too has an elasticity of spirit and expression; he can be silly even as he is stern and loving, and when I first watched Cliff, I did not know which father preceded the other. Now I am horrified that I ever thought of these two men in the same way.”

    “Cliff” is Bill Cosby.

  • The cover of the book Fantasyland


    How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

    By far, the most ambitious of all of these cultural reviews is Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland. The book’s subtitle: “How America went haywire: a 500-year history” provides a bread crumb of information for those aware of historical dates. Five hundred years ago takes us to 1517, which was the year that Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the door at the church at Wittenberg, the event that is considered to be the start of the Protestant Reformation. (It should be noted that there had been men previous to Luther who had attempted to reform the Catholic Church, but each of them had been forced into hiding or else had been executed for heresy.) Luther was successful because Pope Leo X (a member of the Medici family) was distracted by war. But Luther’s shot across the Church’s bow was aided by his access to mechanical printing, which made it much easier to spread word of his call for reformation to Christians across Europe.

    Andersen makes an effective argument that Luther’s declaration that he knew more about how to run the church than the Pope, followed later by Jean Calvin and other reformers’ insistence that each Christian should read and interpret the Bible for themselves, opened up an age where each person was told to create their own sense of Biblical truth. Once the Church was no longer the sole arbiter of what was true, he argues, we were ready for the settling of America (where the strictest of the Protestants settled) and the American  declaration that it had special access to the truth and God’s blessing.

    Today, Americans still believe that they have special access to the truth, although American truth is counter-factual to everything we know to be real.

    Among some of the more unbelievable of Americans’ beliefs:

    -More than a third of Americans believe that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the media, science, and government.
    Two-thirds of Americans believe that angels and demons not only exist, but they are “active” in the world.
    A third believe that extraterrestrials have either recently visited or are currently living on the earth.
    A quarter of Americans believe the previous president was the Antichrist.

    While one can obviously not draw a straight line between Martin Luther and Donald Trump, Andersen constructs over the course of his book a brilliant argument about how a combination of factors that began with Americans’ belief that they occupied a nation that had a special relationship with God has led our history from Jamestown to the present day to the “fantasyland” we occupy.

    As he describes it:

    “America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers – which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.”

    If you have an interest in understanding the state of our country and its leadership and people today, then Fantasyland may be the best place to start.

  • The cover of the book The Tunnel at the End of the Light

    The Tunnel at the End of the Light

    Jim Shepard writes film critiques for The Believer magazine. In the ten essays collected here, he provides a brilliant exploration that goes beyond a simple reading of a filmmaker’s style or the semiotics of a camera angle to instead show the complex connections between film genre and audience expectations. Using this as a starting point, he is able to build a convincing argument that film genres are not just descriptive stories; they also function to accustom us to new forms of reality. In other words, films become prescriptive when we begin to take our behavioral clues from what we see on the screen.

    And while this may call to mind teenagers who get injured attempting to replicate what they see on screen, Shepard demonstrates that the stakes are larger than jackasses being “Jackass.” Again and again, Shepard demonstrates how accepting the standard structure of genre sets us up to accept structures in politics without thinking about them. He shows how the gangster film made the behavior of Dick Cheney understandable. And Shepard also gores some fan favorites. In a no-holds-barred essay about Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” he argues that the film saps audiences of their power to voice opposition to war by using death as the highest form of moral argument.

    He writes, “The standard issue war movie laments the way war takes us away from our best and brightest – in other words, those who lead us in moral instruction, usually by example. But it’s the loss itself, in those movies, that often instructs. It’s the loss itself that ratifies the values being pushed.”

    And it’s why, he argues, we can engage in arguments on the home front where people will insist that it’s “disrespectful” to politicize soldiers’ deaths. As if it weren’t politics that had sent men to their deaths in the first place, but that they had died for some higher cause divorced from the decisions made in Washington, D.C.

  • The cover of the book A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause

    A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause

    It is hard to imagine in 2017, when silence feels like the rarest of commodities, that for decades, one of the most popular worldwide performers was a man who performed on a stage while never saying a word. Marcel Marceau (1923-2007) was a French man who could entertain anyone without needing to speak vocal language. He worked as a mime, who behind white greasepaint and a costume of Breton stripes and white pants and a battered silk opera hat – all part of his role as “Bip the clown” – entertained audiences with performances that were both comic and heartbreaking. He was literal poetry in motion.

    In A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, Shawn Wen has written a collection of prose poetry, lists, and imaginary mise-en-scenes that illustrate Marceau’s power. His story begins when he was a teenager in France during its occupation by the Nazis. Marceau was a Jew. His brother was a member of the Resistance. His father died at Auschwitz. And Marceau – not his birth name – worked as a forger who helped children evade being sent to the death camps. After the war, he goes to drama school and discovers the power of not speaking.

    Wen provides a lot of evidence that Marceau was not speechless, but she provides powerful words to fill in for all the silences he nevertheless left behind. A standard biography would have crushed the subtlety of his performances. Instead, Wen’s range of approaches mirror performance pieces that call for their own applause.

    Since reading Wen, each time I’ve heard a Michael Jackson song on the radio, I’ve thought of what she wrote about what Marceau said about MJ. “I’ve seen Michael on TV for years, and I think that he is a poet. But now he is in the tradition of French poets like Verlaine and Rimbaud because his subject is the lost childhood.” She notes that when Jackson debuted his moonwalk, he modeled it on Marceau’s Walking Against the Wind, which makes Jackson’s dance less the practice of an alien creature and more part of a grand tradition of humans battling the elements with art.

  • The cover of the book The Platinum Age of Television

    The Platinum Age of Television

    From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific

    The sheer scope of Bianculli’s collection – examining television from the days of “I Love Lucy” to the current day of “The Walking Dead” is impressive – and the book offers more than 500 pages of analysis of the best television ever aired.

    Bianculli profiles twenty-five television showrunners and performers, including a history of that person’s TV productions and in-depth interviews in which their philosophy of the medium is dissected. But as if that isn’t enough, he also then presents examples of shows from the genres of children’s programs, animation, variety/sketch, soap operas, crime, legal, medical, family sitcoms, workplace sitcoms, splitcoms, single working women sitcoms, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, westerns, spies, general drama, war, miniseries, and topical comedy. For each genre, he lists five shows that he argues represent “key evolutionary stages” and then presents in-depth analyses of each of those shows.

    The book is a tremendous reference book, but it is also fun to read like a novel, starting at the beginning, and reading through the history of the medium that has changed the world. The only point of contention may be the division of genres themselves. While he places “The Sopranos” under “crime,” he puts another great show about crime, “The Wire,” under “general drama.” The ingenuity of such a system is, of course, that he gets to include a greater selection of some of this past decade’s “platinum” television in the book. “The Americans” is examined under “spies,” while “Deadwood” fits under the “western” genre.

    Bianculli’s love for television comes through in his reviews. They are sophisticated analyses of the show under his pen, but it is clear from his writing that he is a fan of that show and of television in general. Once upon a time, television was considered a step down from movies, but in Bianculli’s writing, TV is top of the bill.

  • The cover of the book You Play the Girl

    You Play the Girl

    At times this summer, it felt as if headlines about the treatment of women in the film and television industries appeared on a weekly – and more frequent – basis. Revelations about how the “casting couch” is still used as a weapon when casting women to the revelation of gross disparities in pay between male and female talent to director James Cameron’s issues with strong women reading articles about women in 2017 didn’t feel much different from articles that could have been written twenty years ago.

    Carina Chocano’s whip-smart collection of essays interrogates the various roles assigned to women that, in turn, send girls and women a series of mixed messages about how women are supposed to behave. The book ultimately feels like a clever antidote to the summer’s malaise. One of the fundamental points she makes is that it would be easier to fight against the cultural cookie-cutter messages if they were at least consistent in their messages. It’s much harder to fight against messages that hold out a positive carrot to lure one in, only to find out that now that you’ve taken the carrot of empowerment, you’re expected to dress like a Playboy Bunny at the same time.

    Chocano uses a combination of examples drawn from TV, films, and books, as well as situations that most women run into in social or work experiences, to demonstrate how pervasive these messages to women are. And she points out that many of us start experiencing these messages from the time that we are babies. If you’ve shopped for baby clothes lately, you’ll notice that infant clothing for boys will declare that the baby is a “champ” or a “genius” or a “winner,” while onesies for girls are emblazoned with the messages that baby girls are “little angels,” “little princesses” or will describe in some way how physically attractive the baby girl is. I went shopping for a friend’s newborn just a few months ago, and I was shocked to find that I still couldn’t find a single piece of clothing for baby girls that declared that a “baby genius” was enclothed.

    If those messages begin before girls are even conscious of them, then by the time women get to adulthood, they’ve often become so ubiquitous that many women no longer notice them. They just accept them as “the way of the world.” Or “boys will be boys,” even when that behavior includes sexual violence or other inappropriate behavior.

    In the particular example of the woman who longs to work in the creative arts, Chocano cites the dozens of films and books where women are shown that for them, great creativity comes with severe mental issues. While male writers can be shown in a film suffering from the problems of how to juggle too many lovers or struggling with the writing, women artists on film become part of “the eternal allure of the basket case.” In an example I knew well, she examines the film “Camille Claudel,” a film that came out in 1988 when Chocano was “a student in Paris trying to imagine how a girl became an artist when the world insisted on defining artists as the opposite of a girl.” Claudel was a real-life historical figure, a famous nineteenth-century French sculptor who started out as one of Rodin’s students, became his lover, and eventually she left him to develop her own artistic identity – which she did, successfully.

    But, then, “Rodin continued to publicly support her work, but she was socially ostracized and neglected by the art world. She was broke and paranoid, convinced that Rodin was trying to sabotage her career and poison her. A week after her father died, her brother had her committed to an asylum. She stopped sculpting and became a mental patient until she died, thirty years later.”

    What Chocano notices is that while “Camille Claudel” may be her first film about a woman artist, it is not the last one that will repeat the pattern of the story of a great woman (artist, writer) who achieves success and then flames out and goes mad. But the ways that these stories are told differs from that of male artists. For example, a female artist who follows a lover on a Byronic journey is portrayed as a stalker rather than as a hero, as a male artist would be.

    In other examples – the bad girlfriend, the ingenue who chooses marriage or death, the woman on the redemptive journey, the real girl – women are repeatedly offered the opportunity to be a fully developed human being, but always at a high cost that is not demanded of men.