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Something for Nothing: Luck in America Hardcover – January 27, 2003
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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.
From The New Yorker
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
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If I could have, i would have given three and a half stars instead of 4 to "Something for Nothing" by Jackson Lears. Although this book turned out to be not quite what I expected, I found it worth reading and I was excited to finish it.
I noticed the word "slog" in some other reviews -- although that characterization isn't inappropriate, I'll refrain from using that word here because it seems slightly rude: the author doesn't deserve the harshness, and I wasn't forced to read the book (although I tend to steer clear of books such as this that contain the word "ontological" :-)) The text is certainly dense with scholarly material, with an emphasis on sociological (as opposed to psychological) perspective (with passing nods to genetics and temperament). Reading it often seemed like a not very leisurely endeavor, the text like a brain dump by someone who was trying to tie everything they ever read into it, but more often than not the effort paid off.
Just because an author makes demands of a reader doesn't guarantee the text is worthy of it, but Lear does a commendable job of articulating many insights concerning the evolution of the competing roles of chance and control in American culture, history, religion, and economics, from colonial times to the present. However, the author's subtitle "Luck in America" should probably have been "Chance Versus Control in America" because that's the way Lear presents much of his material.
Lear distinguishes luck from chance by asserting there's a belief that luck can be manipulated while chance is purely random. This was initially confusing because it made luck seem like a subset of chance in that it was chance that could be manipulated -- but wouldn't that make it an expression of control? It seems probably not, because often the manipulation is the result of an appeal to a higher power, such as a diety or supernatural force, for intervention.
Gambling is a topic few people are neutral about. I'm superstitious about gambling with money because I believe things usually balance out. Lear focused on the dichotomy between the ideas of linear progress and luck while ignoring cyclic concepts regarding the nature of the passage of time (which are very ancient and remained prevalent up until the industrial revolution).
I was somewhat uncomfortable and slightly disappointed with the way the author seemed to dismissively categorize much of both the Catholicism of immigrants and the Native African beliefs perpetuated by slaves in America as superstitious. Lear also seemed to mostly blink away the role of women altogether, even in subtle ways, such as when use of the word "bildungsroman" (quotes are mine) was followed by Lear rephrasing it with the words "or novel of initiation into manhood" (page 312) instead of providing a more gender-neutral definition, such as, "a novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education".
Every decision a person makes has elements of risk, payoff, and uncertainty. But, although entertaining, Lear's strong academic approach really got into the weeds (and occasionally down a rabbit hole) here, especially with respect to his litany of implications concerning the "chance versus control" argument and it's ramifications in a variety of diverse contexts: the Protestant concept of Providence, interpretations of Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection, gambling in northern states in contrast to southern states (both before and after the Civil War), psychotherapy, the environmental movement, facism, the measurement of time, visual art, race, the Cold War nuclear arms race, jazz music, physics, etc.
This book was both more and less than what I expected in different ways. It would have been nice if Lear had offered more ideas of his own to advance the discussion instead of focusing on producing a well-researched summary where practically every idea and phrase was attributed to another source (he actually used the exact same quote from French poet Charles Peguy in 2 places, on pages 191 and 238), some being works of fiction: I was confused by the last chapter before the epilogue ending with an 8 page synopsis of Ralph Ellison's novel, "Invisible Man". I was surprised by a statement made well over 300 pages into the book, actually on the last page of the epilogue -- "The longing for grace remains at the heart of the culture of chance" -- not because I disagree, but because the author chose to include so much material in the book that goes so far afield from that simple premise. I was also taken aback by Lear's conclusion where taking a chance is equated with the pursuit of happiness: for many, happiness remains closely aligned with a sense of comfort, certainty, and security -- in other words, everything that chance is not.
The second part of the book was a little more coherent for me, the bibliographical material in the reference notes is excellent, and I only found about a dozen typographical errors, so I recommend it.
[Incidentally, most of the typographical errors were duplicate words: "among among" on page 91, "he he" on page 97, "the the" on page 124, omission of the pronoun "he" in "when was" on page 126, "vegetable" mispelled as "vagetable" on page 198, "be come" on page 202, omission of "as" in "well the" on page 214, "a ideal" instead of "an ideal" on page 218, "of of" on page 249, "apeal" instead of "appeal" on page 282, and "the the" on page 290.]
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