It is a bit early, one would think, to start being nostalgic about the 1980s -- and beyond the questions of timeliness raised by this book there are even more serious questions of good taste. Surely, those who remember the disorderly decade so painfully evoked in this thorough but haphazard volume would rather forget it. If ever a 10-year-period justified the Joycean description of history ("a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken"), it was the period from 1980 to 1989. (Parenthetically, it might be well to remark at this point that this 10-year period is not, strictly, "The 80s." Since our calendar never had a year 0, the first century began with the year 1 and the 1980s began with the year 1981. This will be a bit of random pedantry, no doubt, until the year 2000, when the whole world can be expected to start the second millennium a year early.)
Opinions differ (an probably will for the next century) on what was the most significant (that is to say, the most unnerving) development of the decade. Some interpreters turn to nature and discuss such cataclysmic events as the Big Slide of 1986, which made Los Angeles a neighbor of San Francisco. Others focus on economics, contrast the oil glut of the late '80s with the earlier shortage, when OPEC prices were rising at a 50 percent annual rate, and argue about which was more disastrous economically.
There was exceptional turmoil in the arts, entertainment and communications.
Institutions that had seemed permanent parts of the landscape crumbled or were strangely altered. NBC went officially bankrupt in December 1953, when Fred Siverman, trying to light the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, was told that Con Edieven more traumatic event was the merger of Variety in The New York Times, a coupling that produced such hybrid headlines as "Afghan Was Is Held Over for 6th Big Week." But this was only a small part of a major development. "The 80s" somewhat melodramatically headlines its sections on the written word, "Adieu, son had shut off the network's electric power. The final disaster was a series called "Hippie Days," based on a shaky trend toward nostalgia for the late '60s.
For the remaining literate few, an Print," but reports of the death of reading seems somewhat exaggerated. "Life" survives as "Half Life," a magazine devoted to nuclear power, and the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez are flourshing in the "fotonovella" format, with photographs as dialogue balloons in comic-strip style to tell the story. The appearance of "The 80s," itself, demonstrates that print can survive, at least on a debased level, and the decade gave birth to quite a few bestselling books, such as Erma Bombeck's "If Life Is a Dream, How Come I Can't Get to Sleep?" eRichard Marek's "The Ludlum Formula," Julia Child's "The Pseudo-French Chef" and John Toland's "Hitler Said the Darnedest Things."
Beyond bankruptcies, landslides, the vagaries of show biz and the whims of the literary marketplace, the mainspring of American life in the '80s was undoubtedly (and unfortunately) still politics -- both a cause and a sympton of the most serious national misfortunes. Probably the central event of the decade was the national election of 1982, a presidential off-year and one in which a stringent new code of ethics was imposed on Congress. As a result of voter apathy (toasters were offered as premiums for those who went to the polls) and as a consequence of the decision of 96 percent of the incumbents not to run for reelection, the legislative body elected in that year is now tagged for history as the "Nut Congress."
It is best remembered, no doubt, for the Meat Proscription Act of 1983, which made it illegal "to eat, cook, possess, butcher or cause to be butchered, slice, shop, smoke, or process meat of any kind" within the United States. The enforcement of this act, and its consequences -- the virtual disappearance of pets from the American scene, the development of an elaborate system of "meatlegging" and the rise of a new counterculture in which such words as "tough" and "tender" had code meanings, was probably the most spectacular public event of the decade.
All these events and many more are included in "The 80s." There is an account of the smash-hit musical version of "1984," with Marlon Brando as Big Brother; a photo of the Great Wall of China temporarily installed in Central Park as part of its 1982 tour of the U.S.; a vignette on the popular French mineral water that began exporting syrup in the '80s after unsuccessful attempts at freezedrying; the election of Walter Cronkite to the newly created offfice of Anchorman of the United States. The '80s are here in all their tawdry profusion for whoever wants to know them.
It is hardly cheerful reading, rather a prime example of history as "the great dust heap." But it should be widely read. Otherwise, as the philosophers have warned, we run the danger of repeating it.