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Book of the week: Elsewhere, U.S.A. by Dalton Conley
According to sociology professor Dalton Conley, more and more Americans are being torn by competing roles: they feel they’re “in the right place, doing the right thing” only when “they’re on
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lsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety
by Dalton Conley
(Pantheon, 221 pages, $24)

Did you check your text messages before you started to read this sentence? Will there be time to read the two paragraphs ahead before the game comes back on, or a fresh news story goes up on the Drudge Report, or that document from the boss shows up in an e-mail? More and more Americans, says sociology professor Dalton Conley, feel they’re “in the right place, doing the right thing” only when “they’re on the way to the next destination.” Whether we’re in the office, at home, or sitting at the 50-yard line in a crowded stadium, we’re torn by competing roles, by the far-flung networks our gadgets connect us to, by the anxious feeling that we could be doing more. No one can count us absent, but we’re living “elsewhere.”

If Conley’s analysis sounds familiar, said David Billet in The Wall Street Journal, that’s because it is. “Modernity” has been shaking up social arrangements and people’s sense of self “since at least the early 19th century.” But Conley’s “sharp observations and lucid, concise prose” make his diagnosis feel “engagingly fresh” in its details. Forget about the alienating effects of railroads and mass-produced clothing. Conley sees intriguing­ parallels between prison life and the all-inclusive environ­ment of Google’s corporate campus. He’s amused that our work organizations have become so egalitarian that hardly any of us can be sure anymore whether we are really essential.

But Conley “shows himself to be a much more acute observer than analyst,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. While his tableaux often bring a smile of recognition, “he has no big new point to make.” At best, he has a handful of would-be buzzwords—“intraviduals,” “convestment,” “weisure”—that are too unappealing to ever make it into popular parlance. Some of his claims are also “badly dated” now that the go-go economy he describes has collapsed. Most of the social changes Conley observes, though, are probably here to stay, said Jonathan Birchall in the Financial Times. Anxiety is still anxiety, whether it’s pure worry or actual experience telling us that our sense of security is built on a house of cards.

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