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The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don't Think for Themselves Paperback – October 5, 2004

3.1 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Curtis White’s The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves--which grew from a 2002 Harper's article—examines as its titular object the dominant American liberal, pseudo-intellectual consciousness. "The Middle Mind" disdains hard thinking and true examination of corporate and political forces that act upon it. In the book, White dilates on his notion of an American Middle Mind to imagine a world beyond it, but he frequently gets lost on his journey. He finds three sources for this American malaise: the entertainment industry, academic orthodoxy, and political ideology. But, as in the original magazine piece, the figures he picks to condemn within this triumvirate are a bit surprising, even while his attacks are unremitting. NPR's Terry Gross, for example, is characterized as one whose work is "useless for the purposes of intelligence," and her show is dismissed as a "pornographic farce." In his critiques, White claims to be resisting the classic high-brow/low-brow cultural distinctions; or, rather, he sees the Middle Mind as having absorbed them. But his frequent allusions to Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, and high Modernism long for a world that never was, a world of art and political resistance that was somehow accessible in its full complexity to all of America. While White wants a creative, intelligent, politically engaged American mass culture, his exemplars look remarkably like high culture icons and few modern intellectuals are left standing (notably Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Bill Moyers). By the end, his call for a "pragmatic sublime" diffuses into vague, postmodern-theory-laden discussion of artistic formalism and a celebration of David Lynch's film Blue Velvet as a model for resistance. In this context of exclusivity, Terry Gross's inclusive "Middle Mind" seems the more open space for true discourse. --Patrick O’Kelley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

In March 2002 Harper's ran White's controversial essay attacking Fresh Air radio host Terry Gross (a "schlock jock"). The article sparked outrage at the author's choice of sacred cow to savage. White (Memories of My Father Watching TV) fleshes out that piece into a book-length attack on the pseudo-intellectual tendencies of mainstream America. "The middle mind" describes the large segment of folks who claim to be interested in art and ideas, but who would never permit those influences to budge their complacent assumptions about postindustrial life. White investigates the role of the middle mind in the arenas of "entertainment, intellectual orthodoxy, and political ideology." The middle mind "offers us an art and a cultural commentary that is really just more commercial product." White's writing is undisciplined, frightfully (and unabashedly) elitist, self-satisfied, jokey yet rather entertaining. He is given to outlandish, often unsubstantiated claims about the terrors of modern life; he fares far better when concentrating on a specific text, whether it be Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan or Radiohead's album Kid A. White finds the rise in aesthetic and cultural interest on the part of ordinary people over the last few decades disagreeable, which will disturb some readers. One thing can be said for White, however: there's no arguing with his sincerity.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; Reprint edition (October 5, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060730595
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060730598
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #696,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Despite its flaws (which many other reviewers were quick to spot), I found The Middle Mind to be a refreshing look at the bland mediocrity of contemporary American culture. This book may be better appreciated as a collection of essays (which, to a large extent, it is: some of the material has already been published in Harper's) than a book with a unified theme. If you judge it by its title and expect a focused discussion of the middle mind you will be disappointed. If you take each chapter on its own merits, however, you can admire the style, scope and originality of Curtis White's writing.

The middle mind is that superficial, politically correct, nonthreatening cultural terrain that is all around us today. It is, as White tells us, prevalent in the media (especially the supposedly liberal media such as NPR), academia and politics. To the right of the middle mind are the cultural conservatives who want to turn back the clock to a mythic America of the past; to the left are the "tenured radicals" whose criticism of society seldom reaches beyond the university. Steven Spielberg (whose Saving Private Ryan is methodically criticized; White does a good job in exposing it as a simplistic, anachronistic piece of pro-war propaganda), Charlie Rose and NPR's Terry Gross are given as examples of the middle mind in action. I am not familiar with the latter two, but White portrays them as pseudo-serious talk shows full of celebrity gossip.
There are a couple of problems with this book. One is the insufficient attention given to the central topic of the middle mind itself. White gives some good examples of it, but never really pins down the middle mind and its relationship to the extremes.
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Format: Hardcover
Those reviews they got up here so far show exactly what Curtis White is criticizing. In that sense they are pretty much useless. Curtis White's position is neither liberal not conservative. Anybody who claims that White is liberal or conservative has simply missed the main point of the book. White is attacking NPR and Dinesh D'Souza, Cultural Studies and Steven Spielberg. The real point of the book is how one can possibly go beyond the stifling lack of imagination - which manifests itself so clearly in those almost petrified structures you run across every day - including the reviews here. If you're willing to throw some of those convictions you got over board and try to see things not from left or right but from somewhere else go and read the book. If you're caught in the liberal-right wing scheme and you prefer to read somebody you can agree with save your money.
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Format: Hardcover
As other readers have commented, White does a poor job of giving a precise meaning to "the middle mind," and he actually fails to tell us why Americans don't think for themselves. He gives plenty of examples of Americans not thinking for themselves, but provides little in the way of explanation.
Nonetheless, a prescription, and a valuable one, can be abstracted from this rather scattered and wide-ranging work of social criticism: let us critically examine our cultural, political, aesthetic and social worlds with an eye to the possible alternatives and open possibilities. White performs evocative readings of disparate social artifacts, ranging from Saving Private Ryan, The Accidental Buddhist, and Radiohead's music to political efforts co-opt "stupid smart" gen-Xers for business revitalization. Some of these readings miss the mark while others are quite perceptive; I suspect every reader will find occasion to agree and to disagree. I would suggest that far from attempting to feed us "correct" opinions, White is telegraphing a critical stance to the world whose absence he rightly deplores. By analogy, if this book were about the state of the culinary arts, it would not be a cookbook of tried-and-true recipes, but a call that we should challenge ourselves to discover the joy of cooking, with all the risk and mess it entails. Who knows what new culinary creations might come of it?
This is an extremely ambitious short work -- a book that ultimately points to a world of thought and engagement far beyond its own pages. Highly recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
It's hard to dislike a book that skewers John Seabrook, not to mention Bloom, D'Sousa, and English Department faculty who think they are political scientists . . . but this is a difficult book to warm up to.
The problem is, I think, that it's poorly written. White bounces between little jokes, truncated academic arguments, and insightful observations about American society while the reader just holds on to his racing prose. It's more a rant than an argument. If I had been his editor, I would have said, "This is great, Curtis. It's good that you got this out of your system. NOW you can write an actual book about this subject."
I think I agree with his basic views, but his arguments wander off into fogs of compacted references and then are abruptly announced as completed: "Now, having finished with the left, I'll critique the right." Finished? Had you STARTED?
I think my biggest disappointment with the book is that very little of it is actually about the "middle mind" (after reading the book, try to sit down and write a one page essay distinguishing the middle from the lower and upper mind)and virtually none of it is about "why Americans don't think for themselves" (which is the book's subtitle).
I've been trying to think of people I could recommend this to (people who don't share the exact same educational background as White), and I can't think of anyone. I really don't know who the audience is for this . . . perhaps graduate students. I am going to use it in my class because I agree with his positions, but think analyzing his statements would be a great exercise in critical thinking.
I think the point of a book like this is that it could persuade people who don't already agree with his basic stance. And, in this, I think the book fails.
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