Book Review – Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment by Harold Schechter

Savage Pastimes is an interesting little book that my esteemed associate, Skippy, loaned me recently.

Written by Harold Schechter, whose body of work consists mostly of books about serial killers, Savage Pastimes looks at the issue of whether modern violent media (i.e. video games and movies) are corrupting influences.

He approaches the question by looking at popular culture down through history, from the festival atmosphere of public executions in the middle ages, to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the horror comics of the 1940’s, to TV westerns in more recent decades.

His conclusion is interesting, but not altogether surprising.  I’ll get to that shortly, but before I do, I need to throw out some anecdotes.

I grew up in the 1970’s and 80’s.  The first TV show other than Sesame Street that I can solidly anchor in time1 is an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker that aired in the fall of 1974 – I would have been 5.  The episode in question involved an alien that sucked the bone marrow out of its victims – wholesome family entertainment indeed.  Mom and Dad had no particular problem with my little brother and I watching Kolchak.  However, we were shielded from cartoons like Spider-Man, because they were too violent.  Also banned at various points were Speed Racer and Ultraman.  Mixed messages, much?

Even while we were kept from watching the cool shows, we were allowed, even encouraged, to run around the yard with cap guns.  To this day, I have scars from accidentally self-inflicted cuts from hunting knives I was probably way too young to safely handle.  These knives came from a local flea market, where my brother and I purchased quite a few copies of the old EC horror comics.

When I was around 12, and we finally got cable TV, the main screening criteria for the movies that we could watch were how much nudity and sex were depicted, not how much violence.  When we were lobbying to watch The Howling, a werewolf film with a dizzying amount of gore for a mainstream film in 1981, the issue my folks had wasn’t with Robert Picardo’s2 character digging a bullet out of his head, it was with about 20 seconds worth of Elisabeth Brooks’ full frontal nudity – breasts being more damaging than dripping brain matter, apparently.

When my closest brother and I were in high school, and my youngest brother was around 5 (the same age when I was watching Kolchack), we’d rent all manner of films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and watch them together.  We all turned out more or less OK.

More recently, my son (13 as of this writing) is quite an accomplished player of pretty much the entire Call of Duty series.  He’s also enjoyed such fine films as Predator and The Expendables with me.  Nevertheless, he’s one of the most compassionate and gentle kids that I know.

So, considering my personal experiences, I wasn’t surprised when Schechter declared that violence in popular culture really doesn’t drive the crime rate up, or turn young consumers of such media into depraved killers.  I was surprised, when I thought back about it, how much violence there was in media that I ravenously consumed as a child.  (Schechter points out numerous instances of this – we as people tend to view our own experiences through a lens of nostalgia.)

What Schechter does well in Savage Pastimes is to clear off that lens, and remind the reader that there has been violence in media for as long as there has been media.  The book is worth reading for this alone.

What Schechter doesn’t do as well3, in my view, is dig into why popular culture is such an easy target for the sanctimonious to attack.  There are a lot of possible answers, I think, ranging from a sincere, but possibly misinformed, desire to make things “better”, to a purely financial interest.  It would have been interesting to look at different groups to see where they were coming from.  Perhaps in another book.

Overall, I think Savage Pastimes is an interesting and fairly quick read that gives the reader relevant historical background and demonstrates the need for a clear and objective assessment of modern media rather than taking the easy route of knee-jerk reactionism.


1I remember other shows, but I can’t tie them to a particular age or time.

2Later to portray the Emergency Medical Hologram on Star Trek: Voyager…

3Schechter also veers dangerously close to sexism a few times with the implication that socially constructed gender roles are the natural, default behaviors of boys and girls.  He’d have been better not to go there and stick with the general argument.

2012 Books, and a Recommendation

So I’ve been trying to read a lot this year.  So far, I’ve been fairly successful.

In an effort to fill space before my Super Mega Awesome Cinco De Mayo movie review, I’ll summarize the books that I’ve read so far this year, that I’m currently reading, and that I have queued up next.

The first batch are in the “completed” stack:

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – Reviewed here.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – I read these mainly because of the buzz surrounding the movie.  I liked them overall, mostly because of the way Katniss developed over the course of the books.  The subject matter is somewhat disturbing, but most of the darker themes weren’t explored as deeply as they would have been in more adult books.  The most interesting material could have been condensed to about a book and a half.

Lawrence M. Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing – An interesting and accessible book about cosmology and why we have a universe rather than not.  It’s eloquent and thought provoking.

Katherine Stewart’s The Good News Club – Stewart investigates the encroachment of religious groups, specifically fundamentalist Christian groups, into the public school arena in the  United States, which has been abetted by a series of court decisions that characterize religious activity as protected speech.  It’s a very compelling, and somewhat chilling, read.

Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus – Rodda reviews the subtle and not-so-subtle historical revisionism espoused by certain conservative Christian groups.  This can be particularly difficult for the average person to notice, since one must usually go back to primary documents to unravel the truth.  Rodda goes back to the source material and meticulously teases out the truth.  In many cases, she traces the evolution of a particular claim through a variety of successive embellishments, many of which start with the writings of David Barton.  It’s like an insidious game of telephone…

Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum – I think it was Joshua Zelinsky that pointed out Stross’ Laundry Files books to me.  The basic hook is that “magic” is really math, and the weird things that H.P. Lovecraft wrote about are basically accurate.  The premise works.  I thought this was the second best of the three Laundry books published to-date, the best being The Atrocity Archives.

Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow – The wonders of science.  Dawkins is a very eloquent writer, and when he gets going on science, it’s hard to stop reading.

Charles Seife’s Proofiness – Lying with numbers, and how to detect it.  Counting is inherently messy, and lots of parties have a vested interest in exploiting that fact.

Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Kings – A look at the mistresses of a number of European monarchs down through the centuries.  It’s less about the sex and more about the political influence and authority that many of these ladies wielded during a time in history where royal marriages were more about bolstering international relations and consolidating power than about any actual affinity between the two parties.  The book is a little uneven, since Herman jumps back and forth a lot, but still interesting.

The books below are titles that I’m in various stages of reading ranging from “most of the way through” to “have barely cracked the spine”:

Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life – Chernow’s hefty biography of the first U.S. President.  (In the literal sense – the print edition clocks in at over 900 pages).  Most of us know Washington based on a chapter or two in high school history classes and a few pithy anecdotes about cherry trees.  The real man was a much more complex individual, keen to be accepted in the higher circles of Colonial society, and with some significant grudges against the British military traditions that denied him the recognition that he felt he deserved.  I’m still working through this and will be for a while.

Compendium 1 of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead – I’m a huge fan of the television series.  The premise of the graphic novels – survivors of a zombie apocalypse trying to figure out their places in a new world – is the same, but the development of most of the characters goes down rather different paths.  Watching the initially stable personalities start to unravel and the secondary characters grow into something new is fascinating.

Michael B.A. Oldstone’s Viruses, Plagues, and History – Oldstone takes a look at a number of the biggest killers in history, such as Smallpox, Yellow Fever, and AIDS.  He goes into some pretty gory detail, which is both engrossing and stomach churning.  The grim threat of weaponized diseases shows up several times.  Pair this book with the film Contagion for a fun-filled evening.

Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality – Dawkins on critical thinking skills.  Aimed at a younger audience.  I haven’t gotten too far into it, but my initial thought is that Dawkins may be a bit heavy for teens or young adults.

And finally, queues but not started:

David Rothenberg’s Survival of the Beautiful – A work on the topic of sexual selection.  Why do peacocks have such elaborate plumage? Why are some animals brightly colored to the point where they attract predators?  Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen deals with similar material.

Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life – A massive biography of Sir Winston Churchill.  This one will take quite a while to work through.

Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? – Ehrman takes on the topic of Jesus mythicism.  There has been some controversy around Ehrman’s scholarship for this book.  The existence of an historical Jesus has been a subject of contention among scholars for years, and despite what most of us may have been taught in church or Sunday school, is far from being a settled question.  At the conservative end of the scale are those who would claim that everything written in the Bible about Jesus is completely correct, and at the other end are those who would claim that Jesus was a character built out of bits and pieces of pre-existing myths and stories.  In the wide middle are those who posit an historical individual around whom various stories and legends grew.  It’s an interesting topic, but a very polarizing one.

My goal is to complete this list by the end of July, which gives me 4 months left in the year.  I’d like to aim for another 10 books by the end of December.  Suggestions are welcome.

Now, there is one other resource I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reading lately, and even though it doesn’t fit in the “book” category, I wanted to go ahead and put in a plug for it.

Over at Patheos, a young woman named Libby Anne has a fascinating blog called Love, Joy, Feminism.  Libby Anne comes from a family that is involved in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movements.  I was not terribly familiar with either of these beyond the very general premise that Quiverfull families have lots of kids.  Libby Anne left these movements in college.  Her story speaks for itself – there’s no way I can summarize it that does justice to the eloquence and sensitivity with which she writes.  She also frequently links to a number of blogs dealing with similar stories, which are all compelling in their own way.  I’m not sure exactly why I find her story so interesting, but I do.  I recommend paying Libby Anne a visit and reading her About page.