Our book recommendation of the month is Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image, a critical analysis of cultural attitudes toward reality and its reproduction, and how the American public tends to find more enjoyable unrealistic, fabricated spectacles than facts. Published in 1962, the book also outlines the (then at its early stages) role of media in politics, predicting their weight in presidential elections; the historian was indeed inspired by the presidential campaign of 1960, as the debates—between candidates J.F. Kennedy and R. Nixon—were televised for the first time in US history.
Organized in six thematic chapters, the book addresses a variety of matters relevant to the mass mediated public sphere, marked by a correlation between the public’s unrealistic expectations and the construction of pseudo-events to satisfy them. Boorstin’s definition of pseudo-event is that of a happening planned or planted in order to be reproduced by media, and whose “relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous” (11). From there, the historian tackles specific cases, going through celebrity (the human pseudo-event), the creation of tourist expectations instead of the enjoyment of travel, the adaptation and condensation of narrative, prophetic fabrications, and the illusion of prestige.
Even though I don’t share some of the positions Boorstin defended throughout his career, I find The Image a rather lucid and sharp take on the construction of ad-hoc public images and the shaping of collective imaginaries. The whole book is a thought-provoking tool to better understand mass communication dynamics, as Boorstin’s analysis and vision are still incredibly relevant and spot-on up to the present day. In times of fake-news and post-truths, this is absolutely a highly recommended read.
Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America. New York: Atheneum.