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on 19 May 2017
This book points up some strange and amusing features of life these days. I enjoyed reading it even though it's a bit over the top in places and I don't agree with everything it says. The conclusion that we should find happiness in laughing at absurdity is interesting and.... erm.... absurd!
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on 11 May 2017
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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 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 sensation....so 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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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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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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on 21 September 2014
I was in the giant bookstore Foley's in Central London. I had a very little amount of money on my bank account meaning I could only afford one book. I usually don't read, I am usually just a lazy young person avoiding difficult subjects with little self control over what I do. I constantly feel unhappy and that others are better than me, so I avidly trawled through the book shelves to buy my first philosophical book which shared my skepticism of self help books which my mother loves and I usually hate. Ironically this is a self help book as well, but the references, quotations and sources used are so much more satisfying and easy to relate to compared to corny quotations telling you how amazing and deserving you are coming from other self help mumbo jumbo books. It made me understand why I feel so dissatisfied, why people mostly seem to be having a better time than me, even though it isn't necessarily true and how striving unremittingly can give you joy. I also loved how the quotations used from the masters of the past (Schopenhauer, Marcus Aurelius, Buddha, etc.) are still so relevant today.This book has motivated me to read more and I really bought the right book with the little money I had that day. I would recommend it to everyone!
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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 30 November 2010
I've just this minute finished Michale Foley's book The Age of Absurdity, which, among many other things, invites us to look upon absurdity as the new sublime.

While they are fresh in my mind, I thought I'd just remember out loud a few favourite Foleyisms.

Happy, shiny work people
Foley notes how employees increasingly have to present and develop themselves not as a person but as a brand. And the brand identity? "Bubbly and smiley". God help you if you don't want to "lighten up and have fun".

Hard wired for fatalism?
Foley references some impressive neuroscience to challenge the pervasive concept of the `hard-wired brain'. "Far from being fixed millions of years ago the individual brain constantly rewires itself throughout a lifetime in response to experience," says Foley. This newly discovered plasticity allows the creation of entirely new brain configurations through persistent, attentive activity of more or less any kind. It also renders less useful the excuse "I'm an arsehole because I was hardwired to be an arsehole. It's just the way I am". Your basic temperament may indeed be set at arsehole, but if you really work at it you have to potential to be just a mildly irritating individual.

Staying cool is such hard work
Foley: "...staying cool is hard work because the cool is constantly destroyed by mass adoption. It was cool to get a tattoo when tattoos were the insignia of the dangerous outlaw -- but soon even suburban housewives had tattoos on their bum". Unarguable.

Real-life just seems boring these days
Giant-size, miniature, plasma, touch -- the screen is omnipresent. Pin sharp, bright, highly edited -- it's making real-life seem boring. The increasingly frenetic rate of image change of our new screen lives is also putting our brains into a continuous state of psychological red alert. Brain and body simply can't recover equilibrium.

Foley shows that this growing addiction to passive, stimulus-driven entertainment means we struggle with anything static and slow moving. We're losing the capacity to concentrate. Read a book? Have a conversation? Focus on a single task? That's, like, sooo, linear.

The failure of the primary experience
If it wasn't photographed, or it didn't get videod, it never really happened. We live our lives through a lens, and then view it on our "shiny, twit machines" (thank you, Charlie Brooker for that one)

Micro evolution -- adapting for the workplace
To a greater or lesser extent we are all actors when we're at work. Foley laments that we become a "simplified persona" -- shallower, actorish versions of our true selves -- through a process of unconscious adaptions. These generally take mildly depressing forms. For example, Foley drinks cheap instant coffee at work and it's always tasted fine. At work. He knows if he drank it at home (where he always grinds beans to make fresh espresso) it would taste vile. At work, he concludes, "even my taste buds renounce complexity and depth".

Where did my vibrancy go?
As well as the "ceaseless acting" we do at work, says Foley, we also channel considerable energy into maintaining that bubbly, smiley persona. This is bloody hard work and everyone needs a break. Hence when you spot colleagues out of work -- in the lunch hour for example -- they often appear "shabby, diminished and furtive". They've gone "off the set" and the artificial vibrancy has been extinguished.

Lost the plot? There never was one.
Not infrequently I am reminded of my inability to follow a plot (of a film or book). This is viewed by my family as mildly comical or "a bit sad". But I've always maintained I'm just not that interested in plots, or narratives generally. And now, in Michael Foley, I have discovered a fellow traveller.

The pleasure of the plot is all expectation and sensation, says Foley -- but the "dénouement of the plot-driven novel is often implausible and disappointing. so the pleasure is illusory and short-lived". Novels that reproduce some of the texture and feeling of life are less likely to rely on plotting -- no need, real life has no plot -- but are more likely to provide richer satisfactions and live longer in the mind. Says Foley. And says me.

Needless to say The Age of Absurdity is determinedly and joyfyully plotless. Foley ranges around his subject -- contemporary cultural conditioning -- with unconstrained abandon. A contrarian on the loose, in the age of conformity as well absurdity.
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on 6 June 2010
I will write more about this soon, but I wanted to praise Michael Foley. His knowledge, perception and writing skills are quite humbling. You could almost dispense with all other similar books and just reread this continuously. It is hard to disagree with a single word he says as he quotes all the great thinkers including the apostle Matthew, Nietzsche and Buddha. At times he gets too opinionated but always cites good examples that return his subjectivity to a rational objective truth. If you have an enquiring mind you MUST read this book!
JP :)
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