From Publishers Weekly
Public moralists cannot abide the obsessive gambler. They bemoan the disintegration of a solid work ethic and condemn the search for the quick buck, the belief that it's possible to get something for nothing. But Lears, a historian at Rutgers and editor of the journal Raritan, finds a much more complex issue at the heart of gambling in America, one that raises fundamental ethical, religious and philosophical questions that strike at the very core of our culture. He writes, "Debate about gambling reveals fundamental fault lines in American character, sharp tensions between an impulse toward risk and a zeal for control. Those tensions may be universal, but seldom have they been so sharply opposed as in the United States, where longings for a lucky strike have been counterbalanced by a secular Protestant Ethic that has questioned the very existence of luck." Lears offers a history of conflicting attitudes toward luck, beginning with early English settlers and continuing up to September 11, 2001. The book often reads like a course in Western Civilization, moving easily among the disciplines of religion, history, literature, art, economics, philosophy and science. And yet the vast assemblage of information becomes so overwhelming, it's easy to lose the book's primary thread; i.e., the ways that gambling, chance and luck have shaped American culture. Furthermore, the emphasis on men as the primary actors is too narrow; where are the women in this cultural history? Despite its flaws, however, this challenging, erudite and original book is a significant contribution to American cultural studies.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The belief that there is luck in the world, and that some people can "work it," appears to be something that no amount of Enlightenment rationality can completely do away with. In a narrative so sweeping that there is a fresh example in nearly every paragraph, Lears, a distinguished historian with a special interest in the quirky cultures of protest and dissent that percolate beneath the sleek official culture of competence and control in America, examines our persistent fascination with chance. If you work hard, it is modest and becoming to ascribe your success to luck; but if you really are lucky, and get something for nothing, your success is tainted. Lears emphasizes the paradoxes: gambling is immoral and voodoo is a superstition, but trading on margin and going to confession enjoy social approval. From sacred palm nuts to John Cage's aleatory art, this book is a reminder that modernity is a project forever incomplete.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker