Friday, September 25, 2009

Only Yesterday

I have a bias against older nonfiction books as I don't think they age well. The evidence gets old, the arguments get settled or the style becomes out-dated and the read just isn't the same. Well, Frederick Allen Lewis sure showed me up. He wrote Only Yesterday in 1931 and it read like it was written last year.

Lewis was an editor at the Atlantic and I wonder if his style has influenced later writers there. He is crisp, funny and has a strong point of view throughout. I loved his description of the motivations of Klan members:

"...but it white robe and hood, its flaming cross, its secrecy, and the preposterous vocabulary of it ritual could be made the vehicle for all that infantile love of hocus-pocus and mummery, that lust for secret adventure, which survives in the adult whose lot is cast in drab places. Here was a chance to dress up the village bigot and let him be a Knight of the Invisible Empire."

It doesn't hurt that the subjects feel particularly relevant today. Lewis covers racism, populism, and the infatuation with celebrity, sports, and trifling events, at the expense of vital issues. He describes the madness of the stock bubble and the shouting down of anyone who call into question the riches to be made. He also looks at the cult of business (the business of America is business, and all that) and at the how religion and business began to use each other's language. He describes a very popular book called the Man Nobody Knows which argued that Jesus was the founder of modern business thanks to his executive experience and his skills at advertising.

Reading this book, I was both happy and sad to see that we as a society have many of the same problems. On the downside, there are many problems that we have failed to conquer for so long. On the plus side, our time is not a uniquely debased one.


Brack said...

Two of of my favorite nonfic "books of a certain age" are William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is as comprehensive and granular a treatment of the subject as I have read, and The Lion and the Throne by Catherine Drinker Bowen, a biography of Sir Edward Coke, a jurist in Elizabethan England considered by many to be the father of the Anglo-American system of common law. Both books won the National Book Award ('61 and '58, if wikimemory serves), so they were apparently just as seductive back in their nubile youth as they are in their cougardom.

Tripp said...

Hmmm, well I love a cougar as much as the next fellow, but what are to we think of books even older. May December romance?

Mmm, a volume on Anglo-American system of common law? I shouldn't tease. You would probably mock me for my interest in naval politics of the 1950s (very interesting!)

wikimemory....very nice.