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Review: Savage Pastimes by Harold Schechter

April 10, 2013

Savage Pastimes coverTitle: Savage Times: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment
Author: Schechter, Harold
Length: 192 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Publisher / Year: St. Martin’s Press / 2005
Source: Amazon
Rating: 3/5
Why I Read It: It was mentioned in a really interesting Bitch! magazine article on our fascination with true crime shows.
Date Read: 05/04/13

A somewhat repetitive and self-serving – but still interesting – look at violence in popular entertainment throughout history.

Schechter is a professor of literature and an author of true crime and serial killer non-fiction. In this book he takes on the critics who argue that our present day popular culture offerings are exceptionally violent and polluting to the mind, and that the movies and video games, for example, have a negative influence on the minds of those who enjoy them. He argues throughout that our popular media now is actually much less violent than it has been in the past, and goes through historical documents and studies to prove this.

By showing the exceptional levels of violence not only in printed works, but in the torture and public entertainment in Europe, the UK and America, Schechter is able to point to the fact that entertainment in the past is enough to turn our stomachs now. One easy example that he uses is that of public executions, which were seen as almost festival like activities at one point with children being brought to witness the torture and death.

That we react with such horrified incredulity to the mere description of the victim’s suffering is significant in itself, suggesting that – for all our exposure to virtual violence – we are actually quite sheltered from the real thing and have a very limited tolerance for it. (page 91)

Schechter also shows that the same arguments are used again and again through time, on each occasion of a new form of entertainment (novels, comic books, radio, television, movies, and now video games). Throughout history, he shows, the morality crusaders often published the same sensationalized violence but simply added a moral lesson to the end. Through the lens of ‘moral instruction’ this violence becomes acceptable.

[...] the perennial crusades against popular culture are, as much as anything else, an expression of nostalgia for an imaginary past that always seems simpler and more “childlike” than the harsh and complex reality of the here-and-now. (page 132)

Despite the interesting history, well written arguments, and excerpts from historical documents, the book wasn’t a favourite. It was quite repetitive with the same arguments being reiterated again and again. Additionally, each chapter contained at least one excerpt that lasted for a page or two in a separate boxed section. These sections really just restated the points already made, but sometimes with different examples. The result read almost as if the book had been written twice, with the shorter book simply inserted instead of having the materials be integrated.

The other thing that bothered me in the book was the gendered language. Boys play violently, boys play video games, boys played with fake guns, and etc. And the conclusion had a comment that serial killers these days mostly “preyed on hookers” leaving the average middle-class person “who probably worries most about crossing paths with a serial killer” with less to fear (page 161). Needless to say, these types of statements didn’t sit too well.

In the end, an interesting read, though not one I would highly recommend. If you are interested in media studies or violence in popular culture give it a read, but else it’s one that can be skipped.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. zibilee permalink
    April 11, 2013 11:26 am

    This sounds terribly obtuse, seeing as that violence in schools and gun toting maniacs are happening today, not 20 or 40 years ago, and I would argue that the population has gotten more violent. My father told me the other day that when he was a kid, the kids stayed out from dawn to dusk on their bikes, parking them anywhere, and returning to them unharmed as the sun was setting. How about now? I’m looking, but I don’t see any kids running around on my block, and I live in a very safe neighborhood.

    Besides the gender skew and that business about prostitutes really offended me. A lot of people who *aren’t* prostitutes have been the target of serial killers. Nope, this author doesn’t sway me, despite his repetitive banter.

    • May 11, 2013 8:44 am

      There were some interesting articles Zibilee, but yeah, I wasn’t super swayed either.

  2. April 15, 2013 6:36 pm

    I always enjoy visiting your book blog because I can always look forward to a fresh dose of non-fiction and Savage Pastimes is no exception. As with sexuality, violence in yesteryear was far edgier that most people would believe. I don’t know where the common consensus that the world enjoyed millennia of Victorianism prudence and decorum came from but hopefully Mr. Schechter’s book does more than its fair share of setting the record straight.

    • May 11, 2013 8:44 am

      It was really crazy reading the excerpts of historical items he quoted Howard! Also, thank you so much for the kind words!

  3. April 21, 2013 10:33 am

    I am almost happy it was a dud. If you like everything my TBR pile is going to suffer. I all ready bought the book you reviewed last… :)

    • May 11, 2013 8:45 am

      Hah! Valid point Kailana. I have that problem when reading reviews too :)

    • May 11, 2013 8:45 am

      (Also – good decision on buying the last book ;) teehee)

  4. April 26, 2013 11:12 pm

    I’ve read some of Schechter’s true crime, but hadn’t heard of this title. Thanks for reviewing it! Too bad it was somewhat repetitive–maybe that’s a habit from his other writing; True Crime seems to include its share of repeating details just to heighten the “mood” or experience of reading it.

    • May 11, 2013 8:46 am

      That’s an interesting point Citizen Reader – I’m sure that the repetition is related to that. Thanks!

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