(92) KunstlerCast: Conversations With James Howard Kunstler [Book review]

Some say that if there is a future historical record much of this age, the internet age, will simply not be included in it. Digital material can develop serious shelf life and readability issues after just a few years.  That’s a worry because the internet, is now the home to much of the intellectual content we make use of.  In the particular case of podcasting a lot of wonderful material is found “out there” and nowhere else, particularly the alternative, non-mainstream, non-status quo voices.

The KunstlerCast, a weekly offering featuring James Howard Kunstler, is one such voice.  He’s an American public intellectual and social critic with a powerful angle on all things suburban.  The digital evaporation of the KunstlerCast’s sharpness, sarcasm and wise counsel would be more than just a personal thing for his audience, it would be something of a cultural tragedy.

Almost from its inception we’ve been listening to the KunstlerCast and loving it.  The dry humour and conversational enjoyability enhances a tasty demolition job on the American automotive/suburban complex, a version of which we built in this country.   Each week, host Duncan Crary sets up Jim Kunstler with a topical angle on where the hell life in North America is going with all its consumerism, its massive energy requirements, car dependence, cul-de-sac houses by the zillion, the ageing strip malls, its completely whacked economics and  increasingly questionable popular culture. It’s rarely ever pretty.

Now, there’s a book based on the podcasts. It may help bring the wit and wisdom out to a wider audience and preserve it for the future.  Both truly worthy things!

Buy this one, okay!  It’s only $16.95 in Canada, a bit less in the States.  You get eight side-bar loaded chapters on “the tragic comedy of urban sprawl.”  There’s also notes and an index and a set of quirky chapter headers by comic artist Ken Avidor.  The latter appear to have been created in an archaic style with a hollow cylinder held in the hand which transfers a sort of wet toner to paper allowing the artist to stain a picture onto the paper by themselves without a computer at all. Imagine that!  One more thing to recommend this three-hundred-and-twenty-page gem of Duncan Crary’s.  Exactly the type of thing one could read on a local light rail vehicle, or a Euro-styled high speed train, gawd, even a kinda-medium speed train would be a nice venue for appreciating this book.

The conversational tone and good naturedness of the KunstlerCast, on the air and on paper, often belie the serious nature of the topics at hand.  Above all, Kunstler calls for a renewed, and closer, relationship with reality in the great republic to our south.  Which has been acting like a demented, addicted rock star for decades now, squandering its wealth and talent on decadent insanities like brutalist city halls, starchitecture, wars in the Middle East and megamalls where there were once fields of corn.

This book should matter to our readers because we cannot understand or alleviate suburban poverty until we know the structure of suburbia as well as the economics that exist there.  The KunstlerCast helps out with this understanding.  Crary has included a subsection of Chapter 6 called Concentrating Poverty where many of suburban-poverty.com’s lines of thought are expounded on.

The conversational tone is so welcome. This is like talking with friends, intellectual cousins.  When I was reading KunstlerCast it felt a bit like David Byrne’s 2009 book Bicycle Diairies wherein the artist relates his explorations on two wheels of some of the world’s major cities.  No sooner had this thought occurred to me than I came across a line in which Crary makes a reference to the Talking Heads song Nothing But Flowers.

I don’t know about you but I love little moments of cross connection like that one.  They are like the feeling one gets in the public places that Kunstler and Crary advocate, the healthy, walkable, finely detailed, organic, cohesive, localized and self-respecting communities that have become too hard to find and which we need to rediscover.  I bet if we could make that rediscovery suburban poverty would stop growing, might even be the part of the now we lose.

For more on the book & podcast click here.