Amusing Ourselves to Death
Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 06/19/2007 by Tim Challies.

Recommended. This book deserves its reputation as a classic. It's a must-read!

It seems unlikely that a book labeled "Current Affairs" could have a shelf life of more than a few years. It seems preposterous that a book dealing with television and referring to Dallas and Dynasty could have anything to see twenty two years after being published. Yet Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, now in it's "20th Anniversary Edition" continues to be read and studied and to hold influence. Even today it is used as required reading in many high school and college level courses. Though written by a man who made no claim to Christianity, few modern books written by an unbeliever have been more widely read and quoted by Christians. It truly is a remarkable little book.

Postman had that rarely quality of being able to see behind a fad, behind what was late and great. He saw the significance of the rise of the image and the fall of the word, the rise of amusement and the decline of discourse. He saw that television would soon saturate every area of our lives and taint the way we understand politics, religion, education and every other area of importance. As we now transition from a television-based culture to a computer-based culture the image remains central. Perhaps we have already amused ourselves past the point of no easy return. Television is remarkably effective at doing what it does best--entertaining. Postman had no argument with television is a tool of entertainment. In fact, the best things on television are its junk and no one is seriously threatened by this. Where television fails is in attempting to do the more serious work that has traditionally been carried by the written word.

Postman makes it his goal in this book to make the epistemology of television visible, demonstrating that television's way of knowing is hostile to typography's way of knowing, and not only that, but it is inferior to it. "Serious television" is a contradiction in terms for television speaks only in the voice of entertainment, never of serious, weighty, discourse--the kind of discourse that is essential to politics, religion and education. Television's influence has been relentless, transforming our culture so that every area is now considered a venue for entertainment.

Electronic media, led by television but being superseded by the computer, has changed the way we view the world and the way we carry on any kind of public discourse. Gone are the days when content was of overwhelming importance. Instead we deal with sound bites, with discordant images torn from any kind of context, and with style when in former days we relied on substance. Politicians win and lose election campaigns not on the basis of what they say, but on the basis of how they look when they say it.

Throughout the book is an interesting interplay between Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. In the latter an oppressive regime dominates the world while in the former the people allow themselves to be overcome by levity, by entertainment and by pleasure so that they have no need of an oppressive regime. They were controlled by their amusements. Huxley, Postman argues, had it right. And I would tend to agree.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is a good read, a disturbing read, a thought-provoking read and, dare I say it, a must-read. It deserves its status as a classic and, though already two decades out of date, it is as timely as ever.