Saturday, December 3, 2016

Read Dark Age Ahead?

You might remember the buzz around the review in the New York Times of Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. Many read it as a review-length instance and tour-de-force of subtweet and shade.

A little over a decade ago, the very same reviewer discussed what turned out to be the last book completed by Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead:
''The purpose of this book,'' [Jacobs] writes, ''is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end, by understanding how such a tragedy comes about, and thereby what can be done to ward it off and thus retain and further develop our living, functioning culture which contains so much of value, so hard won by our forebears. We need this awareness because, as I plan to explain, we show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age.''

In the course of this extremely sloppy book, Ms. Jacobs identifies ''five pillars of our culture'' that she says show ''ominous signs'' of decay...

Unfortunately Ms. Jacobs does not manage to make a plausible case for this thesis in her haphazard book. She does not convince the reader that North America is in danger of entering a Dark Age: either a big one like that following the collapse of the Roman Empire, or a smaller, slower decline. Nor does she persuade the reader that her ''five pillars'' incorporate all today's most pressing problems.
It was not uncommon at the time to say that Jacobs was at the end of her powers - she was nearing 90, somewhat infirm, perhaps all the praise had gone to her head. She had become a crank.

What a difference a little over a decade makes. Dark Age Ahead is poised at this exact moment for something of a critical reappraisal. It's not hard to see why.

Continuing the passage that the reviewer cites, Jacobs writes:
Surely, the threat of losing all we have achieved, everything that makes us the vigorous society we are, cannot apply to us! How could it possibly happen to us? We have books, magnificent storehouses of knowledge about our culture; we have pictures, both still and moving, and oceans of other cultural information that every day wash through the Internet, the daily press, scholarly journals, the careful catalogs of museum exhibitions, the reports compiled by government bureaucracies on every subject from judicial decisions to regulations for earthquake-resistant buildings, and, of course, time capsules.

Dark Ages, surely, are pre-printing and pre-World Wide Web phenomena. Even the Roman classical world was skimpily documented in comparison with our times. With all our information, how could our culture be lost? Or even almost lost? Don't we have it as well preserved as last season's peach crop, ready to nourish our descendants if need be?

Writing, printing, and the Internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture.
Have you read it? Are you interested in reading it? Depending on the level of interest, there might be some writing about it here. It's true it might too much cultural criticism and not enough urbanism. But we'll see. (And if there's a lot of interest, which seems doubtful, we could even structure a book-club approach with scheduled chapters or something.)

1 comment:

Jim Scheppke said...

Our library system (CCRLS) has one copy that is checked out and has one hold. Amazon shows several used copies under $5 plus $3.99 shipping. I got one! Thanks for the recommendation.