Selling Modernity


It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the idea of “modern living” had to be vigorously sold to us.  But there was, and in some parts of the world, the case has still not been made.

SELLING MODERNITY:  Advertising in Twentieth-Century Germany (eds. Swett, Wiesen, Zatlin, Duke 2007) is about the conversion (or conversions – it’s complicated) of Germany to the modern way of life by means of advertising.

It’s complicated because Germany has a complicated history:  World War I, Weimar, Nazis, Hitler, World War II, occupation, East vs. West Germany, capitalism vs. socialism/communism, the poor years, the Cold War, the rich years.  It’s a messy history, too, and nasty.  All you have to do to get a headache is to read about how the Nazis were anti-American yet pro-American when it came to advertising methodology, and both medieval in philosophy while being simultaneously a very modern, scientific regime.  The contradictions boggle the mind.

But you don’t read the essays in SELLING MODERNITY for the specifics of German advertising.  You read it to get the big picture.

And the big picture is that Germany, like the United States, had to be pulled, kicking and screaming, into the mass consumption and marketing of the 20th Century, as late as the 1990’s in the case of the former East Germany.  At the same time that citizens craved modern goods – TVs, washing machines, Rayon – their brains craved traditional tribalism and the comforts of old ways.

A professor once said that the Middle Ages did not end until the late 19th Century, or, perhaps, even as late as the 1950’s.  And some places still haven’t caught on.

I’ll buy that.  Because even as we love to jet to Las Vegas or curate our own TV schedules, we still get a kick out of making our own jams and jellies, listening to the blues, and pounding on our own drums.

And no advertising has been invented that can heal that split.


On Bailing on Books


Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.  My last confession was about 40 years ago.  Since then I have bailed on several books.  I started reading them, then tossed them aside.  I have even tossed aside books by the handsome, young Saul Bellow, above, photo via Knopf.

I just read Bellow’s RAVELSTEIN.  I thought I would bail, but didn’t.  I wavered, though.


RAVELSTEIN is a late work from Bellow, and is a thinly fictionalized account of his real-life relationship with Allan Bloom.  I just wrote about Bloom’s bestselling THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, so I had a sudden, spontaneous interest in RAVELSTEIN.

As a late work, RAVEL is kind of shaky.  Bellow had nearly died of food poisoning a few years prior, and was in his 80’s.  RAVEL is a vehicle for Bellow’s belief that the “pictures” in our mind – the pictures of lived experience, what we call consciousness – along with RAVELSTEIN/BLOOM’s late reversion to speaking as if an afterlife was an automatic expectation of a fully-formed human consciousness (even though Bloom was an atheist) – speak of eternal life for all of us.  Not a small topic!

Bellow at his shakiest still makes for a great novel.  Buoyed by finishing RAVELSTEIN, like an ass I tried reading Bellow’s award-winning 1970 MR. SAMMLER’S PLANET:


btw, this was like my 4th attempt to read SAMMLER.  I think my first attempt was right after an SLU summer class that I took from Bob DeGraff (sp?) for English credit.

Something about SAMMLER repels me.  It’s not SAMMLER’S (or Bellow’s) fault.

I know that when I was younger, the “elderliness” of the protagonist was a turn-off.  Sammler is a partly blind Holocaust survivor with an odd fascination for minor criminals.

I’m not happy to say that, at 61, I am still repelled by the bitchy old man Sammler, even though he has many, many legitimate reasons to be grumpy.  I felt a familiar depression slip over me as the pages went on.  The Sammler Depression.

It’s not because of the Holocaust.  I read history and World War II history.  No problem.  I would suggest that, perhaps, Bellow’s novel is one or two steps greater than straight history, one or two steps more concentrated and potent.

And I’m not up to it yet.  I may never be.

It’s not that I have a problem with Bellow, who was probably the greatest American novelist of the 20th Century.  One of my favorite novels is Bellow’s 1956-ish HENDERSON THE RAIN KING:


I read HENDERSON for the same summer school class at St. Lawrence.  It changed my life.

HENDERSON was the prototypical big, dorky, powerful-to-a-fault American abroad.  He nearly destroyed Africa in his clumsy attempt to love Africa to death.  American foreign policy came to life in a way it could not have in Hepburn Hall with my Government major.  Talk about liberal arts synergy.  This is why I assume SAMMLER is more potent medicine than I can stand; that’s what was true with HENDERSON, but it was assigned.  I HAD to read it.

In any case, the point of all this is:

Don’t be afraid to pick up a book and then, if necessary, toss it aside.

Maybe it’s a bad book.  Maybe it’s not for you.  Maybe you aren’t ready for it yet.  Put it back on the shelf.  It’ll be there 10 or 30 years from now.  Don’t be OCD and refuse the book out of the fear that you’re stuck with it.  Grab and read, or else grab and read and toss aside.

It’s not a sin!

Life is too short for bad or for even inappropriate books.  RAVELSTEIN says that.  And Bellow is always right.