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Modern Times, Modern Places
by Peter Conrad
ISBN 037540113X / 9780375401138 / 0-375-40113-X
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"The earth," said Gertrude Stein in 1938, "is not the same as in the 19th century." And how. Covering a staggeringly vast distance, Peter Conrad traces the development of modern consciousness during the 20th century through the art and thought of Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo. He compares the progress to that of a human life, passing from youthful zest to maturity, but only by way of anguish and torment. This sounds simplistic; the book is not. Conrad's prose is as fluid as his ideas are sharp, and the scope of his reference is vast, its application unassailable. This is intellectual writing at its most accessible. He considers Freud and Chaplin, Stravinsky and Einstein, as he pursues his theme of a planet that has shrunk, as we have grown, to a size that we can manipulate and, as Hiroshima showed, we can destroy. Society's greatest advances have been technological, he argues, yet at the expense of reducing the individualism of humankind, of "dumbing down" to a sedative senility. Wisely avoiding the business of prediction, his declaration of faith in laughter when facing the future, and in the reinterpretation of the past in order to escape it, provides a pleasantly unexpected conclusion.
Arranged in 30 chapters, each a rounded essay in its own right, Modern Times, Modern Places is a powerfully evocative appraisal of the 20th century and its achievements that succeeds, quite frankly, where many will fail. --David Vincent [via]