Digital Is Destroying Everything, by Andrew V. Edwards (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 232 pp., $34.00). Edwards, a digital-marketing executive, states at the beginning of this book that it was not his intention to write “a rant against all things digital.” Nevertheless, his evaluation of what the digital revolution has wrought comes closer to an indictment than anything else I’ve read. (The author explains that he uses the term digital to cover “all disciplines, practices, and products relating to the information-technology industries.”) Digital’s destructive effects upon certain enterprises, human society, and the lives of individuals—the newspaper and book industries, the job market, retail business, the professions, and privacy—have been widely discussed for some time now. To these, Edwards adds the music industry, higher education, financial services, photography, children’s toys—and the historical record. (“Because of digital, today we stand to lose touch with tangible evidence and, thus, with our own history. . . . Old digital artifacts don’t just get dull, stained, scratched, and cracked. They become totally impossible to resurrect because there is no means available to read them, produce them, and display them.”) At a time when underemployment, the transfer of jobs overseas, and jobs lost to technological innovation are major issues, Edwards’s remarks cut deeply. “Played out to [the digital revolution’s] logical extreme, the only elements remaining in the economy would be the Owner, the Programmer, the Software, the Digital Marketer, and the Consumer. There won’t be many other things to be in the later digital economy, and we are headed in this direction with all due speed.”
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Thomas Hart Benton: Discoveries & Interpretations, by Henry Adams (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 364 pp., $50.00). Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), at the height of his fame in the 1930’s, was one of the most accomplished of American painters. As a young art student in Paris he was an acolyte of the modernist style. Later, after his return to the States, he decided to take America—present and past—as his subject. Besides his paintings and drawings he was much in demand as a muralist, one of whose commissions was given him by the government of his native Missouri, which selected him to decorate the state house. Benton’s career illustrates better perhaps than that of any other American working in the various arts the extreme hostility of New York artists and intellectuals toward their colleagues in the American heartland. Once Benton’s modernist period was (mostly) past and he chose the Midwest and ordinary Midwesterners as his subjects, he was excoriated by his fellow painters and critics alike in the East as a racist and an antisemite. (Meyer Schapiro criticized him in Partisan Review for trying to glorify “the folk.”) Adams covers all this ground, and much more, in a very excellent Introduction of 54 pages, followed by a brief biography of his subject, both of them as preface to this very interesting collection of the author’s critical essays on Benton and his work.
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The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis, by René Weis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 400 pp., $39.95). I have always thought that any soprano undertaking the role of Violetta Valéry in Verdi’s La traviata should, before she studies the score, read Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel La dame aux camélias, which as René Weis aptly notes, is really more biography than fiction in its rendering of the love affair and death from consumption of Paris’s most famous courtesan in the early 1840’s. (“Alfredo” is Dumas himself.) Now singers (not just sopranos) have a comprehensive and detailed biography to work from—perhaps too detailed for a biographical work, but not for a very useful social history of France in the mid-19th century, which this book certainly is. Marie Duplessis (born Alphonsine) was born of a drunken peddler and his better-born wife in a small town in Normandy, went to Paris when she was in her mid-teens, had a son by an aristocratic lover, and became almost overnight a luminary in fashionable Parisian society, renowned for her beauty and her style, with a box at the Paris Opéra, a carriage and horses, a lady’s maid, and a fine apartment (all underwritten by her wealthy lovers). Though Piave’s libretto suggests that she experienced a kind of moral conversion through her genuine love for Alfredo, it appears that she was from the beginning a warm-hearted girl, which makes her sacrifice in renouncing him on behalf of the reputations of his two sisters in Provence an act in character. I had always considered her death scene, when she rises from her bed (some directors have her get out of it) crying “Rinasce!” (“Reborn!”), unrealistic, but I learn from Mr. Weis that Marie did in fact rise from the pillow and scream three times before falling back dead, as in the opera. She died at the age of 23.
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