50 Books: zip pop

Self-help books (from yesterday) always make me think of Walker Percy, and Walker Percy always makes me think of Tom Wolfe, and Tom Wolfe makes everyone think of The Bonfire of the Vanities , but have you ever read


From Bauhaus to Our House ?  By Tom Wolfe?

This slim volume (I love saying that) from 1981 tells the bizarre story of how we, the consumer, were quietly conned into accepting “grim and hideous” as the two main pillars of modern architecture — not that pillars have any place in modern architecture.  There has been a small movement back toward beauty and ornamentation in the last few years, but the metal and glass box still has a firm grip on our aesthetic sensibility (gosh, I’m tired.  Well, you know what I mean).

Anyway, even if you’re not normally interested in architecture (and you should be!  What we build tells you who we are, or who we want to be), this weird and hilarious book will open your eyes to What Happened; and it’s a great intro to the non-fiction writing of Tom Wolfe, which I prefer to his fiction.  Ha ha, and Playboy magazine reviewed it thus:  “Sharp serpent’s-tooth wit, useful cultural insight, and snazzy zip! pop! writing.”  So there you have it.  Snazzy and zip pop.


      • Well, I was afraid someone would come in and rail at you about the terrible moral fiber of the people in his fiction, and also of astronauts, so I thought I’d pre-empt it with a positive comment. But I see that this has not happened (yet). Woo-hoo!

        • But the terrible moral fiber of some of his characters is a large part of why I like his fiction. How can you write about American popular culture without involving lots of people with terrible moral fiber? I remember a reviewer of A Man In Full who said something along the lines of “Wolfe is one of the few novelists writing today who looks outside of himself and writes about what he sees.” That seems about right. The man is not a navel-gazer.

          Now, the terrible moral fiber of astronauts…that’s pure scandal and entirely why I will never leave the earth’s atmosphere and subject myself or my family to their extraplanetary depravity and intergalactic perversions.

  1. A great little book…I picked up a used copy for a dollar or two at Title Wave Books on my first trip to Anchorage, and read the whole thing on the trip home.

    I feel so much less insecure when a book I’ve read turns up in this series!

  2. When my daughters and I went on prospective college tours we had a game: Spot the Hideous 1970’s Building. Every single campus, even Wellesley – which might be the prettiest college I’ve ever seen – had one. Some schools were blessed with more than one! The beauty of our surroundings makes a difference.

  3. Also make sure to check out The Painted Word. It’s a similar takedown of contemporary art (“art”?) where the concept is more important than the execution. It gave me the courage to say out loud to that Pollack, et al. are crap without worrying that I missed something. Wolfe’s great–fiction or non-fiction. I’ll have to check out your suggestion.

  4. I read Bonfire and have ZERO recollection of it.
    As for architecture: so many styles, so many reasons…
    I used to hate modern homes, and now love the idea of a house with glass walls, huge retractable glass nana wall systems, tall wood ceilings, in the forest, with a view of the bay and the city.
    I’m starting to think that aint gonna happen in this lifetime.
    I should just unsubscribe to Marin magazine. (sigh)

  5. The sad thing is, because I was born in the 70s, those 70s buildings bring back all kinds of warm, fuzzy childhood memories…so although I know I’m looking at something objectively awful, it makes me feel nice. I know it is wrong of me, but I can’t help it.

  6. I have read that!! And it was great. Coincidentally I mentioned it to my 16-year-old son just recently, when trying to point out to him the chronological dividing line between beautiful buildings and ugly or at best nondescript modernistic ones.

    As I recall, Wolfe said something along the lines of, American architecture was doing wonderful things, what with Art Nouveau and then Art Deco, which both preserved a modicum of ornamentation and symmetry. But then along came Bauhaus, and for some reason we (Americans) swallowed it hook, line and sinker, probably due to our inferiority complex towards Europe.

    But I also loved how he described (if I’m remembering it right) how architects and home developers tried to foist the Bauhaus style on buyers of tract homes. People bought them, but as time went on they started modifying them to have more ornamentation, decoration, moldings, etc. Human beings won’t have inhumanity forced on them forever, so far as they can help it.

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