Essays that rise above the zeitgeist watch


"The Snarling Citizen," essays by Barbara Ehrenreich. 245 pages. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $20 One of the perks of getting really big in the celebrity journalist racket is that publishers start foraging around for any little scrap of stuff Ms. Write has ever written - be they laundry lists, half-finished novels, or ancient letters to the editor. This syndrome accounts for the Collection of Previously Published Material, a book format that is often disappointing because 1. the reader may have seen the material before or 2. the material was originally tailored to another medium - often a non-book medium like television or the lecture circuit.

Such is the case with "The Snarling Citizen," a collection of short opinion pieces on a dizzying range of trendy issues-of-the-day by journalist/critic Barbara Ehrenreich that first appeared in magazines like Time, and the Nation and the Guardian, a British daily newspaper. Ehrenreich is a very intelligent, spirited and essentially serious (but certainly not humorless) woman who has written many thoughtful, nuanced books and articles. She adapts just fine to the space restrictions of periodicals, but the breezy style that is so seductive for ephemeral, read-it-on-the-go newsweeklies, darn near blows off the page when reproduced in a book.

Maybe the reason this collection often seems slight, tinny and glib is the crisis-du-jour topics. (Ehren-reich herself jokingly tells us that many of these pieces were born when a breathless editor called pleading for something on "Whatever Happened to Our Way of Life by Thursday at the latest" and that in search of the answer she then "persists, hour after hour, clicking doggedly away at the remote . . . [until] the zeitgeist begins to emerge from the [TV] screen."

Thus, whether the subject is O.J. Simpson, Beavis and Butt-head, divorce, "Why Johnny Can't Read" or aerobic exercise, the essays in this book begin to have a similar-as-pancakes feel. A too-slick, rather lazy formula emerges funny Russell Baker-like musing, Big Statistic culled from data base search, an illustrative anecodote also from data base, a few recent movie titles (the zeitgeist you see), then the signature snarling quasi-serious conclusion.

Soon the reader is overtaken with that nausea-and-sickness-unto-death modern feeling of information overload - the buffeted, empty sensation you get after spending the whole day watching TV.

To her credit, Ehrenreich's discomfort with the Abortion-in-500 Words-Syndrome comes through. The superficiality of modern "zeit-geist watching" and the overabndance of information and opinions seems to be one topic that really matters to her. It's a concern that stubbornly haunts the edges of this collection and occasionally pops up full blown. Since this is where her passions lie, maybe this is what her next book should be about.

Gripes aside, if one is going to read this instant opinion stuff (and it is as unavoidable as rain), Ehrenreich is one of the best opinion-spewers out there. On political topics she can be annoyingly glib: The heinous "Christian Right" is forever trotted out, looking as cardboard cut-out as ever.

But on stuff in her direct range of vision - sex, marriage, family life, children and those blundering male persons - she is a simply brilliant, hilarious satirist. Imagine a raunchier, more libertarian version of Erma Bombeck . . . an Erma Bombeck with love beads.

Stephanie Gutmann's articles have been published in the New Republic, Woman's Day, Playboy, National Review, the New VTC Yorker, Backstage and elsewhere. Now a New Yorker, she has been on the staffs of the Wilkes-Barre Times-Herald and the New York Post.

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