Modern Times, Modern Places… Aborted

Modern Times, Modern PlacesI made a pretty valiant effort to read Peter Conrad’s Modern Times, Modern Places. It seemed like a good idea at the time; a book about all the wonderful things of the 20th Century, what’s not to like? Movies, literature, philosophy, war… seriously, what’s not to like? And plus, it was on sale dirt-cheap at Border’s. Win-win all around, right?

Not exactly.

I’m not going to try a review, since that wouldn’t be fair. After all, I didn’t finish more than 100 pages of the thing (which happens to be numerous hundreds of pages long). Maybe there’s an absolutely brilliant bit on pages 565 through 595, I couldn’t say. What I can say is that the parts I read weren’t any good.

They were well-written, kind of. My guess would be that Conrad’s a fairly proficient technical writer. He touches a million different subjects, linking them superficially together. And the introduction (or prologue or whatever it was called) was halfway decent, actually making me think I’d like reading the book. What Conrad does, however, isn’t so much a synthesis as a survey. A long-winded, short-sighted survey of all the wonderful powerful products of the 20th Century. He links them together, but in highly superficial, basically meaningless ways.

It would be difficult for him to do anything else, given that he rarely dwells on one particular work of art (significant historical figure, architectural structure, etc.) for more than two sentences. This style lets you know that Conrad is very intelligent, but it also gives the reader the impression of being led through a museum by someone with a severe case of ADD (in a very generic sense).

E.g., “Here’s a painting… oh, here’s another one. Look, they’re both red. Here’s a sculpture. Oh… over here’s something else. Now look at that, see the fine detail in the… here’s another painting… here’s… let’s just skip ahead to the dinosaurs… wait a minute, here’s the, see that window? It’s very skilfully crafted… here’s another…”

You cover a large amount of intellectual territory, but don’t really learn anything. And anything you do learn is learned purely by accident.

Which is why I gave up on the book after page 100 (or slightly before; I didn’t pay that much attention).

Maybe you’d like it. I couldn’t say for sure.