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Subtle and Well-Researched. An Excellent Read.6 May 2012
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I've become very interested in critical theory recently, especially in the areas of Marxist Criticism and Cultural Studies. I've been reading some of the primary texts of these movements in an effort to understand where they are coming from and how they can be used in literary criticism and beyond. So far I have finished a number of short excerpts and essays as well as two books, including The Long Revolution by Raymond Williams. While all of this reading has been truly enlightening, The Long Revolution has stood out to me as one of the most interesting and mindblowing pieces of nonfiction I have ever read.
In this book, Williams sets out to describe the state of literature, democracy, education, and culture in England, how it got there, and where it's going. He does so by tracing the history of various institutions, including public education, the popular press, and standard English, and showing how they have become what they are. Using many (somewhat exhausting) pages of facts and statistics as evidence, Williams comes to stunning and revolutionary conclusions. I was absolutely blown away by his ideas because they seemed so right and felt so honest.
First, Williams sets down definitions for important terms that he will be using for the rest of the books. These terms have so many uses in casual speech that he defines the way he wants the reader to understand them in the context of his book. He defines what it means to be creative, and shows how all people create to some degree in their everyday lives. He also defines culture, not just as art and clothes and the lie, but as structures of feeling, the way people thought and felt about things, the general sense of what it was like to live in a time. Once those definitions are complete, he shows the various ways that an individual can relate to society as a whole, and the different ideas of what it means to be individualistic verses social. His great gift is subtlety, and he can show all the important social reasons why individualism became the dominant idea of how people relate to society while also showing how pure individualism has failed society and is now being reevaluated by a new generation of people. The chapters Individuals and Societies and Images of Society and the end of Part 1 left me literally speechless. It's Williams's balance and fairness, his reliance on research, his refusal to be pedantic or dogmatic, that makes this book so refreshing and so effective.
So often, when we talk about culture we blame low quality arts, be they books, movies, or music, on the masses, as if the working class were inherently less intelligent than the rich or entitled. Williams doesn't just argue against that, he shows with real evidence that much of that classist thinking goes against the actual history of these institutions. He shows, for instance, that the relatively low state of the popular press (magazines and newspapers) today is not, as many people think, the fault of the poor taste of the masses, but instead that the popular press has been affected by changes in printing, distribution, taxation, advertising, and consolidation of ownership more than anything else. The glut of sensational tabloids is sold just as much to the rich as to the poor, and the changes in newspaper styles and distributions are independent of education reforms that taught more of the working class to read. The proliferation of low quality books, movies, music, and newspapers, he argues, is not the fault of the inherent bad taste of the masses, but a side-effect of the ownership of these cultural institutions by speculators who are only interested in making money. Quality artists, interested in furthering the art form, cannot compete with the scale of distribution that the large companies produce. The problem, it seems, is not that people are inherently stupid or that the lower classes have inherently bad taste, but that our current system of capitalism makes our cultural institutions into a matter of speculation and profit. Anyone who is interested in independent publishing should absolutely read Part 3, Britain in the 1960s, which looks at the publishing industry in a way I've never seen before.
Williams writes in a style that is easy to read and understand. Although there are some slow sections where he is setting down definitions or charting history using facts and figures, his conclusions are always strong and flow naturally from his research. The book is older, published in 1961, so I'm sure it has mistakes and is outdated in some places, but most of it still reads as being contemporary and relevant. His structure is perfect, his writing is incredibly readable, and his ideas are engaging. I don't know that I have ever enjoyed academic writing so much, and I thoroughly intend to read more of his books very soon.
Rating: 5 stars. Recommendations: The statistics and definitions can get very boring, but the conclusions they support are worth all the waiting. Note: Many people see this book as a sequel or companion to his earlier book Culture and Society, which I have not read. I found it perfectly readable without having read the other book. That said, I imagine that Culture and Society is also very good.