Reviews: THE MODERN MYTHS: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination

Book Cover of The Modern Myths: Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination

“Ball does an impressive job with the literary histories behind each iconic title, assembling a set of origin stories rich in cultural history and imagination… To Ball, mythic writing is where the conditions of irrationality, superstition, and enchantment persist: forms of wonder that depend on the disconnect between what we know for sure and what we simply believe.” Sophie Gee, New York Times Book Review

“Myths themselves commonly embody the religious beliefs of ancient or preliterate peoples, but Ball suggests that we are still generating them. Subtitled Adventures in the Machinery of the Popular Imagination, his book, The Modern Myths, cogently argues for the originality and potent cultural resonance of Robinson Crusoe, Victor Frankenstein and his creature, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, alien invaders like those of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, Batman, and even zombies. All these soon escaped from their original creators’ control and are now at large, their stories capable of multiple and even conflicting interpretations. The key to the mythic mode, asserts Ball, is ambivalence.” Michael Dirda, Washington Post

“A persistent myth of the modern West is that it has outgrown the need for myths, along with religion, magic and other ‘irrational’ beliefs of the benighted past. This triumphalist story of rationality was proclaimed by Enlightenment philosophers and documented by later social scientists; throughout the 1990s, ‘the disenchantment of the world’ became an incantation within the parched groves of academe. Ball is among those who counter that enchantment and modernity aren’t incompatible. In The Modern Myths, he makes a persuasive case that myth isn’t gone but can be found in stories closer to our current obsessions such as science and technology, globalization and individual psychology… His provocations to debate are among the book’s many pleasures.” Michael Saler, Wall Street Journal

“Modern myths – of which Ball identifies seven, starting with Robinson Crusoe and ending with Batman – are not, despite their origins in specific texts, so much singular narratives as ‘evolving web[s] of many stories – interweaving, interacting, contradicting each other’ – but with one thing in common: ‘[A] rugged, elemental, irreducible kernel charged with the magical power of generating versions of the story.’ This fecund capacity to produce new narratives is what allows these myths to do their ‘cultural work’: they ‘erect a rough-hewn framework on which to hang our anxieties, fears, and dreams.” Rob Latham, Los Angeles Review of Books

“From acclaimed popular science writer Ball comes a fresh look at the modern legends that shape our perception of reality. Stories like Dracula, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, or Frankenstein, which we keep retelling and reimagining, are doing the kind of cultural work that ancient myths and fairy tales once did. How do they operate, and why do we need them? And what tales will come to be the new myths of the future?” Bookseller

Published by University of Chicago Press (Spring 2021) hardcover ISBN 0-226-71926-X

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