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3.7 out of 5 stars
Within the Context of No Context
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61 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2003
Format: Paperback
The New Yorker has turned the entirety of its magazine over to a single work four times. John Hersey's Hiroshima, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, cautionary and apocalyptic all, were three. The fourth is this book.
Within the Context of No Context went out of print almost instantly after it was published in 1980. Nobody got this book in 1980. It's a difficult read, in a voice that is diffuse, associative, and allusive, and at the same time makes direct assertions about the way things are, which few of us are comfortable reading. It's not a book that people were quite ready to read in 1980.
Except for newsmen. People who made their living by drinking out of the firehose and transforming the experience into column inches understood this book right away. (These are the same people who don't need anyone to explain the first sentence of The White Album to them.)
Trow put their unease into words. And for 15 years Within the Context of No Context existed in a kind of samizdat, a thick sheaf of photocopied pages handed from one reporter or columnist or editor to another.
You shouldn't buy this book, ideally. Someone should give you a copy of it, Xeroxed from The New Yorker, saying "Read this. This makes sense. This makes everything make sense."
22 years later, it's much easier to read and understand, to criticize and quibble with. It's no longer prophecy. Unlike the apocalypses that John Hersey and Rachel Carson and Jonathan Schell were warning us about, the one Trow outlined has already happened. We've even gotten used to it.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
George Trow's "Within the Context of No Context", an essay originally published in the New Yorker, is a long complaint about the vulgarization of American culture by the mass media interspersed with anecdotes from the author's past. The former is what made the essay's reputation, but it's the latter that is more revealing. Like many hell-in-a-handbasket types, Trow combines a refined sensibility with a profound solipsism, leading him to misdiagnose his personal sadness as a generalized cultural malaise.

As for the malaise, you've heard it all before. According to Trow, in recent decades (meaning the 60s and 70s, since the essay was published in 1981), a tranquil, contemplative, and authentic American cultural scene has been poisoned by a loud, crass, celebrity-worshiping, bauble-shilling rot promulgated by tabloids and television. To his credit, he manages to find a novel way to package this time-worn complaint. Much of the essay consists of brief (ranging from a few sentences to a few pages) aphoristic sections in which Trow's terse newspaper-like diction is put into the service of a weirdly compelling vagueness, a sort of lobotomized New Journalism. His metaphors skitter right up to the edge of making sense, then slink teasingly away, leaving a sympathetic audience plenty of space to read in their own desired meanings.

Of course a lot of American mass culture really is vulgar, so along the way Trow can't help but make some cogent observations. For example, he keeps returning to the idea of a gap between the "grids" of "two-hundred million" and "intimacy". Reading charitably, he seems to be making a valid observation about how strange it is that people gossip about celebrities as if they were acquaintances. Elsewhere Trow breaks out of his navel-gazing funk to interview an editor from People who describes the way that magazine tries to maximize sales by timing its cover photos to be just behind the zeitgeist. It's a fascinating bit of media anthropology, but it's also the only place where Trow steers the focus away from his own curmudgeonly obsessions. Mostly he just ambles around bemoaning things, oblivious to the fact that others have advanced the same complaints under the heading of "alienation" or weltschmerz years before anyone even dreamed of television.

This book contains another essay, "Collapsing Dominant", written fifteen years later as a kind of follow-up. Though essentially the same stuff (the world is still going to hell, though Trow is surprisingly fond of Quentin Tarantino), this one feels more honest because it is openly autobiographical. Trow talks at length about his family, a New York publishing dynasty, and his distress at watching the eastern WASP establishment culture they represented fall out of favor in the 1960s just as he was becoming an adult. The free-floating anguish of the earlier essay now shows itself as originating in Trow's sense of being denied his birthright. This is hopeless snobbery, of course, but Trow comes off better here for being forthright about his frustrated sense of entitlement, and spells out more of the personal details that lie at the heart of his angst. Perhaps most revealing is an aside about his time at Exeter in the late 1950s, when he belonged to a clique who called themselves "negos", because they had a negative attitude towards the world that sprung from the deep well of disaffection known only to the most bright, sensitive, and privileged young men. Could this be the secret of Trow's enduring appeal: that he speaks to the clever adolescents his readers once were?
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 26, 1997
Format: Paperback
I was thrilled to hear that this strange, brilliant book is being reissued. It's one of those books people press on their friends saying, "You should read this -- *really.*" My own copy has long been gone, pocketed by an acquaintance whom I pressed it on in an excess of generosity. The book itself is hard to describe. It's an elegant personal meditation on (among other things) the decline of WASP society, the effects of television and celebrity on American culture, and the author's inability to wear a fedora without crushing embarrassment. If memory serves, there's also a second essay about producer Ahmet Ertegun and his assistant David Geffen -- this was long before David Geffen was *David Geffen* -- that didn't seem as good at the time but may now seem prescient. Trow's elliptical, lapidary style gives you some of the dizzying feeling you get from David Foster Wallace, though his work is a lot shorter and more terse. Terrific stuff
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 1998
Format: Paperback
Trow's prose, terse at times, yet nevertheless powerful, offers an extremely insightful critical review of the insidious nature of the media in contemporary american culture. Trow's main focus centers upon the vast distance which television has created between the individual (the grid of intimacy) and society (the grid of two-hundred million). Trow proposes that television has provided individuals with what appears to be a comfortable context in which to organize their lives yet that context is merely a facsimile of life. Trow's discussion is truly eye-opening. As individuals, we are forced to grapple with the force of the media in our own lives. For example, Have we allowed television to form our thoughts and opinions, leading to automaton conformity? Ultimately, in a society in which the media dominates our lives, Trow's work alerts us to the dangers of becoming lost amidst a collective media-- while it may seem alarming, what we perceive as a comforting context may in actuality be the stark reality of nothingness.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2010
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I had this book pushed on me by a friend bemoaning the death of "taste and refinement" in the USA. Well, I've read it and the other reviews here and I don't understand the hype. This is not a great essay, nor even a particularly original thesis for an essay. (Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," this is not, despite the enthusiasm of some of the reviewers.) It stakes out a middlebrow-putting-on-some-highbrow-airs place in the great 20th century question-complex that modernity has chewed over now since at least 1918 although somehow all of it was presaged well before by the likes of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Conrad, Dostoyevsky etc.,

Why are we so damned bored? Why is there nothing real to do? What the hell is wrong with us? Why is it the more prosperous we become the more miserable and empty life seems? What broke Western Man's joie de vivre... Then mix some historicity into these questions -- the millions of dead in the trenches of WWI, then WWII and auschwitz, hiroshima, etc. ... And then, ever since around 1950, it has become increasingly obvious that the weltschmertz the modernists felt so acutely was being complicated -- exacerbated and obscured (but by no means cured) -- by the loud sugar-saturated hyper-active consumerist triviality of contemporary culture -- The entertainment Mass Media! TV! yeegads. Quisp. Quake. TV. This is where Trow jumps on... our culture is all mass media'd, all rotten with People magazine and celebrity worship, our long-developed culture (context) is gone, and what's left occurs within no-context: the set of the Mike Douglas show -- Nowhere, but with chairs and a studio audience. I'll give Trow this much: he absolutely nails 'reality TV'... he sees it coming, sees that ultimately there must TV about being on TV... pure context of no context.

But that's about it. Trow does not really add all that much to the conversation -- Pretty much every other thinker/cultural product in the past 50 years, from Philip K. Dick to Roland Barthes to E.M. Cioran to Don DeLillo to Network, has spoken to these issues in some way. The thinker Trow is most like is David Foster Wallace. Trow's book is more like notes for DFW's essays than an independent work. The strongest pages in Trow, the last pages of "Within the Context of No Context" which concern Trow's summer job as a Protocol Guide at the '64 World's Fair are so David Foster Wallace, you can't quite believe DFW didn't write them -- even DFW's smiling-yet-wounded it's-all-so-funny-but-it's-not-really-all-that-funny-actually tone is found in those pages... the only things missing are the modulating shenanigans of DFWs style... Trow isn't the stylist Foster Wallace was.

Trow's little book belongs in a bibliography of The Great Malaise but it is neither the first, last, nor best word on it. This isn't the place for an extended discussion of Trow vis a vis DFW, but I derived the most enjoyment in the essay from thinking about how Trow's writing and thought compares to DFW's.

**a little edit/comment on my own review** my review reads (to me) sour and three years later my recollection of the book is not nearly as negative as this review implies. I also might leave someone with the mistaken impression Trow's writing somehow derives from DFW, which of course is not possible just by simple chronology. My point was DFW and Trow work similar themes but for me at least DFW is more incisive. (Hardly a damning criticism of Trow). I think my review was motivated by a desire to act as a corrective to the many 5 star reviews that proclaim this "book is amazing, oracular, etc." Ok, imo it isn't all that. But it is well worth reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2009
Format: Paperback
I've been thinking about this book a lot lately, especially Trow's description of the Family Feud anecdote in which the game show host "asked contestants to guess what a poll of a hundred people had guessed would be the height of the average American woman. Guess what they've guessed. Guess what they've guessed the average is." Media these days are seemingly obsessed with telling us how we ourselves, as individuals or groups, think or feel about everything. Trow saw the danger of this nearly thirty years ago. The book is both dense and ethereal - interpret it as you will. In the introduction, written a decade after publication, Trow describes how his family's background in publishing led to his feelings about the demise of culture. This does a lot to put <u>In the Context</u> into context.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
A quirky diatribe against the superficiality and meaninglessness of TV, with its focus on the trivial and mindless. Trow wrote the original essay in 1980, long before PCs, the Internet, and IPods, but everything he says about how TV creates an illusion of intimacy even as actually creates ever greater distance and loneliness, separating us from one another is even more poignant in today's "connected" world.

Trow's style is deceptively simple and full of irony. It takes time to learn his cadence, but it's worth it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2007
Format: Paperback
Due to its unique structure (lots of brief, choppy sections, almost stream of consciousness writing at times) this is somewhat challenging to read, but worth the struggle. Trow had a bit of a class axe to grind, but he certainly understood the impact of TV and saw the not unrelated decline of a sophisticated mass culture.

Given how much farther we have traveled in that direction, it's not hard to see why he abandoned the US and retreated to Italy at the end of his life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Seeing friends talk about nothing except the Golden Globes, or the NFL playoffs, always reminds me of this book.

People who have so much to share with each other about their own lives instead choose to talk about celebrities and athletes as if the famous ones were our real friends.

And this, for me, is what "Within the Context of No Context" is all about: the substitution of television and celebrity culture for our broader social networks.

Of course, the broader social networks that Trow loved so much formed part of a WASP sense of entitlement and cultural elitism. Trow failed to grasp that the decline in the influence of WASP experts and the democratization of culture were not, by themselves, problems. He complains that demographics now trump history-- that many cultural touchstones have no meaning outside one particular culture-- but he fails to understand that his WASP heritage is just such an echo chamber.

But I think the central question he asks is the right one: "Does what I'm reading right now have any meaning outside of this context?" In other words, if you strip away the context of the Golden Globes, do any of the awards make any difference?
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 8, 1997
Format: Paperback
I will go out on a limb, John Irving notwithstanding, to say this book tends toward the silliness it seeks to describe. WTCONC is an almost gratifying read. The author's cut-up method is sometimes annoying. The last two pages are the strongest. I only wish the estimable Mr. Trow would elaborate on the sense of loss of his childhood days. This is a frame I wish I could revisit more often in the book. He certainly does not fit well, like many bohemians on the margins outside the grid of two million, with the temprament of this sorry age. The blurbs on the back cover of this edition are very embarrassing. Much like a beat-up fedora hat. Hardly vintage clothing. Hardly a watershed
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