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on 11 February 2010
At one point in this book Michael Foley laments his own tendency to buy books and CDs in pursuit of some transcendental experience - the books are going to give him arcane knowledge and explain the meaning of it all. Of course, they stay on the shelf, eventually becoming a source of guilt and stress. This is ironic, because The Age of Absurdity comes as close as anyone ever will to giving you arcane knowledge and explaining the meaning of it all.

I'm simplifying a complex and detailed argument here. But, in brief, Foley argues (or at least I take him to be arguing) that the modern world has placed two major barriers in the path of happiness - the `culture of entitlement' and the worship of potential. (NB: Foley breaks down the analysis into more categories, but I think there's good reason for thinking that these are the main issues). The culture of entitlement is so much part of the zeitgeist that we can hardly see it anymore - it drives the talentless to obsessively seek fame, spawns a million `self esteem' workshops, and ensures that every thug knows his rights without considering that he even has responsibilities. (And if you think it's just thugs, ask yourself when you last concluded a whinge by observing that `someone' - some unnameable `they' - should do something about it). But it also means that when the world fails to notice our talents or respect our rights - which, let's face it, is most of the time - we feel hard done by. We are all poisoning our lives with a terminal feeling of injustice; all have a chip on our shoulder big enough to overbalance us.

The worship of potential is what causes dowdy frumps to face humiliation on TV for the sake of a swift makeover, hi-tech firms to lay off anyone who looks over 40, middle-aged dads to dress as their toddlers (all bright artificial fibres with toggles on), everyone to love travel even if they have no idea where they want to go, and society in general to become dumbed-down and infantalised (don't want to grow up? Don't bother! Why should you?). It also leaves people with a constant sense that they're missing something, that a better time is to be had elsewhere, so we're constantly on the look out for the next big thing - job, relationship, possession. And it discourages us from making the firm decisions which, in a way, define and develop our characters.

It's probably no coincidence that modern capitalism needs both these things - the worship of potential keeps us wanting the newest thing; the culture of entitlement (`because you're worth it!') makes us believe we deserve it, whether or not we have the money.

Many of our problems are the problems of abundance, so Foley draws extensively on the Stoics, (who were writing for a rich, decadent late-Roman audience with many of the same problems). He also makes considerable use of the existentialists, proto-existentialists like Schopenhauer, and Buddhist thought. Obviously it does no harm to have come across these thinkers already. But for anyone who hasn't he leads you in gently, so the lack of a philosophical background isn't too much of a handicap. Indeed, his prose throughout is clear and accessible (just as well for an age which eschews difficulty!)

Two things really make this book special. One is the incisiveness with which he analyses the modern condition. Time and time again, Foley hits the nail on the head - often to the point of being uncomfortable. I'd come to similar conclusions myself about some of the points he makes here, but I hadn't reasoned them through as thoroughly. So it was sobering to be continually confronted by descriptions of my own behaviour. There I was thinking that my problems were interesting and complex, and lo and behold they're everyone's problems. For a while it made me squirm, but actually it's quite reassuring.

Secondly, there are no glib answers. Yes, Foley makes some suggestions for how we might be happier - consider learning to meditate, allow yourself to daydream more, develop the Stoics' mental habit of accepting whatever life throws at you and asking yourself how you might turn it to your advantage in one way or another. But the main answer is that there is no `answer' - we make our own deals with life. The best thing we can do is come to a clear understanding of just what the main issues are - and that's what philosophy (and this book) can help us with.

But then, you've watched Monty Python, so you already knew that.
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on 28 March 2010
There are some excellent reviews on here, so I won't rewrite some already well made points. I just want to express my personal gratitude to 'Mike' for providing a sane voice and conceptual framework for understanding the absurdity of much modern life. I found myself nodding sagely on many pages and thanking God/common sense that there are others out there, who can think 'out of the box' and not be completely sucked in by the outrageous conformity of the modern world.

In order to justify this as a review, I offer a few words on the book: It's very well written, with reference to a wide variety of sources ranging from Buddha and Jesus to Marx and Freud. It's split up into clear chapters with each one being dealt with comprehensively. The writing is lively and amusing. And to be frank, if you've arrived at this page because 'The Age of Absurdity' rings a bell, then you're going to like and appreciate this book. A little effort may be required, but the journey will be worth the effort!
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on 24 February 2010
Foley writes lucidly and with much thought on some of the deeper issues facing western (and potentially other) societies, touching on areas such as the impact of advertising, the role of drugs companies in creating new "disorders", and lack of personal responsibility. There are no easy answers, but he does come up with suggestions that can help embrace the absurdity of modern life and use it to your advantage.

Not a self help book, but a mix of social commentary, philosophy, life coaching and other things. It has a serious purpose (or does it?), but uses brevity and wit to get it's point across.

This is the first book by Foley that I've read but it definitely won't be the last!
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on 19 March 2010
This is a very rare book that combines great insight into the modern human condition with incisive and illuminating wit. It draws upon on a wealth of writings from the great historical thinkers to modern day novelists and is delivered in a superbly engaging way. If you aren't that interested in philosophy you should read this becase it's just a very good read. If you are interested in philosophy don't be put off by this book's 'accessibility' because it takes a very well argued and challenging position on modern life. I think I may now have told everyone I know to read this book so for the first time in a long time I am encouraging strangers to do the same by wrting on Amazon!
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on 8 April 2010
If the sign of a good book is that it leads you on to many other good books, then The Age of Absurdity wins hands down. I've decided to give Proust and James Joyce a second chance on the author's analysis of why they're important "What makes Proust & Joyce seem hard work is the absence of plot....the pleasure of plot is all expectation and plot-driven novels have no residue of beauty." He then goes on to explain the payoff to reading Proust & Joyce - very insightful. The psychologist Barry Schwartz is another recommendation for his work on Choice. I particularly like Foley's observation that faced with a plethora of choice, we are "haunted by the missed opportunities of rejected alternatives" Snappy little summings-up like this stay in the head long after you've read them and are food for rumination (something he say's we're short of). Michael Foley is an astute social commentator able to pinpoint the idiosyncracies of the age in a couple of elegant sentences and then expand with originality on his view. I particularly liked his take on the failure of primary experience and the tyranny of screen life saying that we all become like the inhabitants of Plato's cave "shadowy creatures in a permanent gloom with true perfection online in the bright world on screen." He's also good on the academic studies he quotes from, the intriguingly entitled "The Relationship between television viewing in mid life and the development of Alzheimer's Disease" might be worth a second glance
So what did I find less good? - I think he has a particularly jaundiced view of the work place. And do we really need to know what Mrs Foley thought of the death of Princess Diana?
But overall, as a bracing assault on received wisdom I think it deserves 5 stars.
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VINE VOICEon 19 March 2010
The other excellent reviews here don't require repetition.

This is a very fine book, like a (mainly) one sided conversation with a good friend. Foley says that is what a book should be, and he's right, and his book is an example. Some of what he writes is uncomfortable, but he recognises his own weakness in the face of the zeitgeist too. I've not stopped talking about this since I finished it - and (more importantly) not stopped thinking about it. There are no easy answers, but - to use a modern idea - it provides a context.

Really, really recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 12 July 2010
I can't say that I'm entirely sure what I've taken from Michael Foley's work, but what is clear that it has posed thought, challenged certain personal perceptions and, in some cases, pointed out the things that 'drive us' in life as needing to be given that very thought and challenged.

What this examines, is 'Society' (as we might describe it), cultures, mindsets and, yes, philosophies. I agree with others that Foley's knowledge, perception and writing skills are quite humbling; as he brings a certain clarity to what it a very complex, and difficult to 'pin' concepts.

The concepts (or chapters) of the books are all delicately found against quotes and references to numerous other great thinkers and it's refeshing to have these views (and his own) clearly marked out. His preferences and thoughts are clear, so the reader is empowered to do with this information, guidance or thoughts, as they will.

Rather refreshing to have something, what could be seen as so 'spanning', stay well away from being dogmatic.

It's a book that I would certainly recommend. I just hope that peole will put in the effort to read, think, absorb and then utilise as they see fit.
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on 24 August 2013
The idea that the goal of personal and political life should be happiness was articulated for the Victorian age by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham. During the twentieth century, the idea that this was a desirable or even meaningful goal was subjected to a barrage of criticism, and among philosophers it became extremely unfashionable. True, there were some, like Bertrand Russell, who were still willing to offer advice (see The Conquest of Happiness (1930)). But most regarded the idea as completely wrong-headed ('I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.' Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

Despite the stakes through the heart applied by philosophers, happiness-chasing has risen like a vampire in the last decade and now a flourishing genre diagnoses why we (either individually or collectively) are unhappy and prescribes what we (individually or collectively) should do about it. Influential contributions to this literature are the economist Richard Layard's Happiness (2005) and the psychologist Oliver James' books on 'affluenza'. Whether all this navel-gazing about whether we are happy is counter-productive is a nice question ('Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.' J.S. Mill)

The latest why-so-much-misery memoir comes in the form of Michael Foley's The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to be Happy (2010). The programme of the book is:

'to trawl philosophy, religious teaching, literature, psychology and neuroscience for common ideas on fulfilment, then to investigate how easy or difficult it might be to apply such strategies in contemporary life and finally apply them to areas of near-universal concern.' (p.12) These areas are work, love and ageing.

This description makes the book sound dull, but it's not. Apart from being widely read, and having a readable prose style, Foley also has a sense of humour. The account of the work 'away day' in chapter 11, culminating in a group ritual in which colleagues throw a ball of twine around, while making positive comments about each other, had me hooting. I also enjoyed this recommendation:

'So much anguish and outrage could be prevented if towns and cities floated over their streets every day three giants balloons, showing the messages: 'Failure is More Common Than Success', 'Many Will Dislike You Whatever You Do', and on a balloon even larger than the other two 'The World Does Not Oblige'.' (p.62)

Foley is uncomfortable with many of the characteristic phenomena of the modern age: advertising, television, pornography, open-plan offices, emails, the internet. Instead he prefers the older amusements: reading, walking, music, painting. At times, the book can read like an high-brow version of the TV series Grumpy Old Men, with its whingeing about the indignities of modernity.

While I share many of Foley's prejudices and anxieties about modern life, I think he could have gone further in terms of remedies. What practically could be done to eliminate some of the pernicious effects of modern technologies and values? Take for example the balloon suggestion. It's funny but not serious and therefore ultimately a bit footling.

Often he compares the modern (defined as twenty-first century London, where he now lives) with the traditional (defined as small-town Ireland of the 1960s, where he grew up). Sometimes the traditional way seems better, but there are other aspects of sixties life, such as the widespread practice of beating the hell out of school-children, for which it is difficult to have much nostalgia.

Finally, one might ask whether it really is harder to be happy in the modern world than it was (say) fifty or a hundred years ago. The last word will be left to Samuel Beckett:

'The syndrome known as life is too diffuse to admit of palliation. For every symptom that is eased, another is made worse. The horse leech's daughter is a closed system. Her quantum of wantum cannot vary.'
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on 13 August 2010
For a good overview of the contents, I can't hope to do better than Mr. modern life is rubbish's review dated 11 Feb 2010 which currently has over 200 'helpful' votes. So, go read that.

I just wanted to add that this book has been really influential on me. I've now read it twice in succession - I've never before read a book twice in-a-row - and am sorely tempted to read it a third time. I'm also about to buy my third, fourth and fifth copies because I keep quoting from it, or referring to it, or thinking about parts of it, in conversations with friends. So a few of them are getting presents (again, not like me, cos I'm a bit of a scrooge).

There are arguments he makes which I find tenuous. But then, for an attempt at a grand unified theory of meaning, there's always going to be a few stretches to pull it all together. This book is so full of wisdom, I could've highlighted profound truths on every page (instead, I'm apparently trying to memorize them).
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on 13 March 2010
A thoroughly enjoyable, thought provoking and amusing book.

Foley weaves together philosophy, psychology, science, religion, popular culture and anecdotes from everyday life to explain the absurdity of the modern world.

The only problem with this book is it's going to make you want to go and read all the other books it references. And hopefully all those books won't end up on your shelf unread!

Ultimatley, Foley makes you realise you are not alone in pondering the absurdity of modern life, and points out that the answers are there, they always have been; though don't confuse simple with easy.

Oh, and I picked this book off the shelf initially because of the picture on the front. I guess marketing does have its uses - damn!
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