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The News: A User's Manual Hardcover – February 11, 2014
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To check on the news via paper or myriad electronic devices is “to raise a shell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity,” asserts philosopher de Botton. Exploring the media conceit that it brings its readers, listeners, viewers only the facts, de Botton argues that what we need is the truth, something more nuanced than the facts. To make his point, he offers a collage of headlines and news items from various sources and ponders how they fit into the grander scheme of the human condition. His quirky collection touches on economics, geopolitics, violence, celebrities, and disasters. Short and pithy essays drill down beneath the news item to the general absurdity of life and observations of how the media is constantly feeding us information without real context. Interspersed throughout are references to art, literature, and culture and their more enduring messages in contrast to the impression left by the news of a desperate lack of humanity. This is a thought-provoking look at the impact of news on culture and individuals. --Vanessa Bush
“Short and pithy essays drill down beneath the news item to the general absurdity of life and observations of how the media is constantly feeding us information without real context. Interspersed throughout are references to art, literature, and culture and their more enduring messages in contrast to the impression left by the news of a desperate lack of humanity. This is a thought-provoking look at the impact of news on culture and individuals.” —Vanessa Bush, Booklist
“Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger.” —The Millions, Most Anticipated: The Great 2014 Book Preview
“de Botton examines excerpts of contemporary news, mixing them with philosophical observations about the impact the news has on us, why we rely on it so heavily, and how it impacts the way in which we see the world.” —Huffington Post
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Top Customer Reviews
I am greatly concerned (now even on PBS and National Public Radio) with the widespread emphasis on victims and villains, coupled with a sports mentality (win/lose, points gained, etc.) and agendas shaped by "if it bleeds it leads." Find a victim - preferably with a face or at least voice - apply ideology to identify the villain, and create the "story." Much of the "news" now is entertainment, evidently more profitable and/or popular than truly educational reporting. Much of the public seems to be getting exactly what they want, albeit trash in my estimation. How can we overcome this hurdle (that they are getting what they want)?
His analysis is sharp and his idealism is realistic (that's not a contradiction in terms!). "The news" possesses an enormous influence over how we see our communities, how we see ourselves, and what we believe is possible. Right now, the news is doing a terrible job on all counts. That needn't be the case. de Botton shows us what is broken and gives us inspiration to imagine a media ecosystem that allows each of us to lead better lives. Let's hope a few brave souls take these ideas to heart.
(Disclaimer: I've read most of Alain de Botton's work. I'm inclined to think he's a helpful guide to navigating contemporary dilemmas.)
The book is divided into various sections, each covering a particular aspect of the news - politics, economics, investing, celebrity, consumption and culture. De Botton's basic contention is that, while organizations are preoccupied with the bigger picture of the news, they neglect those human details that render stories meaningful to us all. This is especially true of foreign news: lacking any real understanding of how different cultures work, we cannot really understand the significance of stories from abroad. They are deemed "boring" - especially when compared with "home" news, in other words, the news emanating from our own cultures with which we are intimately acquainted. But it is not in the news organizations' interest to provide information about other cultures; rather they are preoccupied with superficial details - the kind of information that makes headlines but doesn't really attract our interest.
In the economic sphere, news organizations are equally neglectful of their readers' basic preoccupations. In their preoccupation with statistics and/or technical language, they overlook the basic sufferings of ordinary people trying to make ends meet during periods of financial crisis. Nor do they pay much attention to those cast out on the employment scrapheap as factories close and businesses fold. De Botton argues that this is typical of capitalist societies, where money-making takes precedence over human feeling.
Our preoccupation with celebrity culture is another example of capitalism in action. The attraction of celebrity is symptomatic of our frustrations, as we believe that, by acquiring fame, we can somehow jump the queues for basic foodstuffs, paying our bills or other bureaucratic procedures. For the most part, celebrities enjoy their fame as a means of compensating for their unhappy childhoods, when they experienced similar kinds of suffering. De Botton argues that, if we lived in societies where people were kinder to one another - understood in this case as an acknowledgment of other people's feelings and/or shortcomings - then perhaps celebrity would not seem so attractive.
In the realm of culture, De Botton argues very persuasively that most arts journalism is superficial in nature, especially in its preoccupation with the star-system. Instead of rating every cultural production, perhaps we should only review them if we believe that our reviews can help our readers deal with their own particular personal and psychological issues. Criticism would thus serve a moral purpose, to guide and encourage as well as to promote discriminating judgement.
THE NEWS: A USER'S MANUAL is deliberately provocative in tone, offering a penetrating analysis of how the media are not really interested in their readers' views, or what their readers really want, but prefer instead to pursue their own agendas, dictated mostly by financial concerns. If they really cared about the futures of the societies they serve, they would make far more concerted efforts to take into account the need to educate as well as entertain. De Botton offers a means by which this process could be accomplished, but whether any media barons would take notice of any of his recommendations is debatable.