While I haven't been posting much of late, I have been reading a great deal. In fact, I am hoping to write an extended post this weekend about several of the books I've bought and/or read in the last two months. I've been on a pretty good run, in that I've really enjoyed the last three books, including Everything Bad Is Good For You, by Steven Johnson. I'll summarize the book more thoroughly in my review, but suffice to say that, even though I don't agree with all of his arguments, I tend to agree with the general theme of the book - rather than popular culture becoming an intellectual anchor dragging each successive generation further into neanderthalism, pop culture has actually becoming significantly more challenging in a wide variety of mediums and methods, leading to an increase in intellectual ability. Johnson takes great pains to separate the content of the cultural device (such as in video games like Grand Theft Auto), and instead focuses on how participating in these devices requires significantly more and/or different intellectual skills than did the common cultural fare available to the masses in previous decades (what Johnson refers to as "The Sleeper Curve"). TV, movies, video games, etc. - they're all discussed in an interesting yet quick read. As I said, I tend to agree with this reasoning, especially when it comes to television: shows today require significantly more intellecutal muscle to follow and "get" than the shows of yesteryear, be they comedies or dramas. Here is a passage from Johnson's book about the intellectual rigor of a comedy like Seinfeld (page 84):
"To parse the humor of more nuanced shows - Cheers or Friends, for example - the scripts will sometimes demand that you know some basic biographical information about the characters. (Carla will make a snotty reference to Sam Malone's sobriety, without bothering to explain that he once had a drinking problem; Rachel will allude to Monica's overweight childhood). Nearly every episode of Seinfeld or the Simpsons, however, will contain a joke that makes sense only if the viewer fills in the necessary supplemental information - information that is delibrately withheld from the viewer. If you haven't seen the "Mulva" episode, or if the name "Art Vandelay" means nothing to you, then the subsequent references - many of them arriving years after their original appearance - will pass on by unappreciated.
At first glance, this looks like the soap opera tradition of plotlines extending past the time frame of individual episodes, but in practice the device has a different effect. Knowing that George uses the alias Art Vandelay in awkward social situations doesn't help you understand the plot of the current episode; you don't draw on past narratives to understand the events of the present one. In the 180 Seinfeld episodes that aired, seven contain references to Art Vandelay: in George's actully referring to himself with that alias or invoking the name as part of some elaborate lie. He tells a potential emploer at a publishing house that he likes to read the fiction of Art Vandelay, author of Venetian Blinds; in another, he tells an enemployment insurance caseworker that he's applied for a latex salesman job at Vandelay Industries. For storytelling purposes, the only thing that you need to know here is that George is lying in a formal interview; any fictitious author or latex manufacturer would suffice. But the joke arrives through the echo of all those earlier Vandelay references; it's funny because it's making a subtle nod to past events held offscreen. It's what we call in a real-world context an "in-joke" - a joke that's funny only to people to get the reference. And in this case, the reference is to a few fleeting lines in a handful of episodes - most of which aired years before. Television comedy once worked on a scale of thirty seconds: you'd have a setup line, and then a punch line, and then the process would start all over again. With Seinfeld, the gap between setup and punch line could sometimes last five years."
Again, I'd like to provide a bit more of a review when I write my next book post, but I think you can tell I recommend Everything Bad Is Good For You as a solid read with some interesting points to make. It'll also help you feel better about playing video games and watching television every once in a while (or more!).