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Are You Serious?: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly Hardcover – June 28, 2011
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“One of the country’s most eloquent and acid-tongued cultural critics.” (New York Times Magazine )
“The scourge of literary cant.” (Ross Douthat, New York Times Book Review )
“A wizard of macho outrage.” (The Economist )
“A rare bird among American critics...boisterous and erudite.” (London Times Literary Supplement )
“One of the heroic few.” (The Guardian )
“A fluent and culturally voracious critic, Siegel writes a mean and memorable sentence.” (Financial Times )
From the Back Cover
A provocative critique of modern frivolity and a guide to being serious in an unserious age
We used to live in a world run by serious people: politicians and religious leaders, writers and artists, journalists and academics, lawyers and business executives, who approached their work with maturity and mindfulness. Today it seems as if most of these figures have all but disappeared, leaving our country and our culture in the hands of amateurs, buffoons, and professional clowns.
Yet, according to Lee Siegel, seriousness has been elusive in every age, and every age has its own particular obstacles to living seriously. In a unique combination of fiction, memoir, history, social criticism, satire, and spiritual reflection, Siegel illuminates our contemporary distractions of profit, popularity, and instant pleasure as we search for ways to be serious in culture, in politics, and in everyday life.
Are You Serious? is a thoughtful and enlightening exploration of seriousness in all its incarnations, from the heights of intellectual endeavor to the depths of political conflict to how the word itself is used in ordinary situations, from romance to business. Siegel lays bare the forces in modern life that create the silliness all around us, and he describes how seriousness may be attained through the qualities of attention, purpose, and continuity, in satisfying lives forged in bonds of work and love.
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Top Customer Reviews
The question that Siegel ultimately asks is whether our popular culture hasn't made it impossible to be a truly serious person in public life. His first chapter is the most theoretically intriguing, where he illustrates his points with some fairly obscure Englishmen around the turn of the century, and claims that the disintegration of Christianity as an intellectually defensible foundation for a serious life left a big hole in western civilization, one that for a while was filled by what Siegel calls "high seriousness."
What follows is a number of meandering chapters that resemble a Montaigne essay (in organization if not quite in eloquence) on various topics related to seriousness. Along the way, Siegel tries to define seriousness in a quirky, almost technical way--it can be confusing in a casual reading. But there remains a point underneath it all.
Siegel asserts that we as a society crave seriousness, but it also seems that our entertainment-based culture is so razor-sharp at ridiculing any inconsistencies that it is impossible to be taken seriously for long. He even claims that the chattering classes were relieved after September 11 2001, because it brought about the end of a "crisis of irony" where no one was being serious at all--a kind of culture-wide capitulation to Seinfeld. He spends a lot of time explaining figures like Oprah and Jon Stewart in these terms.
Ultimately, though, Siegel can't give any answers to the problems he points out. One of the most memorable passages in the book is how carefully once must distance oneself from any earnestness in order to avoid ridicule. He is almost sly and conniving about this requirement. He writes an autobiographical chapter which is both self-effacing and endearing, but has the side effect of telling you that he's read an incredible number of serious books. In the old days, someone would just assert his or her bona fides to talk about a subject; Siegel, true to his own observations, makes it look as though his ability to talk about seriousness with any authority is more the result of childhood illnesses and accidents than any earnest pursuit of knowledge.
In the end, one comes away from this book with the depressing feeling that in order to be taken seriously, one must occupy a tiny sliver of ground between hypocritical earnestness and ironic nihilism. It left me personally wondering if that sliver of ground really exists in popular culture. It is quite possible that a writer like Siegel is ultimately being self-serving, trying to acknowledge both a necessary (and possible) seriousness, while simultaneously making fun of everyone around him. He criticizes both political viewpoints--but doesn't one need to vote in the end?
The intriguing question about the decay of Christian authority in the nineteenth century never reappears after his first chapter. If you'd like a much more serious discussion of that question, I'd recommend Rieff's "Charisma."