This book is a wonderful examination of the 19th century, the purpose behind which is to show that where we are now, in the early 21st century, was caused by the developments that occurred two centuries before, with particular emphasis being paid to the notion that human beings are disappearing, that human beings aren't what they once were -- before the 19th century (particularly because of Darwin's theory of evolution and other technological developments in science) -- and that we're losing today what we once had as human beings, say, at the time when Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays on self-reliance and on man as reformer were popular.
I say the book is wonderful for two reasons. It is beautifully well-written and possessed of a narrative drive that is rooted in a snap-shot style of writing highly suited to the subject (a stylized portrait of the 19th century in the manner of Eadweard Muybridge when he hit on the idea of making still images move) and it provides a palpable panoramic view of what the whole of the 19th century must have felt like to any given individual living in it -- from Sherlock Holmes and cocaine to nitrous oxide, from daguerrotypes, grave robbing for scientific discovery, seances, the railroad, and Coney Island to ice cream and the ever-so-bloody Civil War.
There are two missing elements in this expansive, provocative work, however. Mr. Sanders never discusses 19th century music and there is only one reference to sex (and that is specifically to the late 20th century phenomenon of phone sex). These missing elements, from my frame of reference, reveal the weakness in the author's main premise -- that human beings are disappearing, that human beings are losing sentience, that human beings are no longer what they once were, say, during the height of Roman Catholic Medievalism. These missing elements show up the weakness not because they merely ought to have been realistically included in a studied portrait of the 19th century that wants to include a complete sample but because if it is true that as human beings we are even losing our bodies qua human bodies, this must be shown to be proven not only in matters of (civil) war where soldiers walk on bodies as they would cobblestones in the street or where driving the Ford car replaces walking, but where we also sense our bodies and communicate with other bodies -- sex and music. But Barry Sanders never examines these areas. He builds his case only out of carefully selected examples that support his premise that we are losing our sentience as human beings. I mean, you'd think that where an author explores 19th century photography so thoroughly as it posits notions of human beings sitting "stiff" for their pictures, there would be an easy, associative exploration to the flowering of bodies being stiff and stimulated in the act of sex while being photographed as was the case in 19th century erotic photography or pornography. It isn't propriety that allows for the omission so much as it is the case that the man behind this curtain of words and sightings doesn't want his picture to be examined in the full light of day. Such exposure would cause over-exposure and a disappearance of the subject. Think of all the 19th century opera that can't be felt any more because we don't have bodies like we used to! Isn't that one of the silliest idea you ever heard?
The place where Barry Sanders makes his excavations about the loss of human being resound most strikingly, most palpably and most disturbingly is in his discussions about the Civil War and its concomitant impact on our contemporary attitude toward torture and death. He shows how Americans simply became overwhelmed with death and consequently got numbed to it just as anesthesia began to develop and numbed surgical patients from pain. We began to live in an anesthetized world that started out with nitrous oxide and cocaine and now exists in all forms of anti-depressants and drug abuse. From the Civil War grew the statistic that although the U.S. population is only one-fifth of the entire world population, it has more serial killers than anywhere else in the world. We watch movies that glamorize violence and killing. Barry Sanders offers the perspective that we pierce our bodies, go to scary amusement parks, and dress like prison thugs all with the aim of trying to root ourselves in some sense of identity, having actually lost "the real" sense of who we are.
Barry Sanders doesn't explicitly state any solution for our growing inhumanity towards man. He, however, offers each human being the awareness that any solution will not be found through the binary codes of computers or the reductive aspects of scientific inquiry. He also shows that even the world "human being" is not found in the dictionary. In the last pages, he looks toward the disenfranchised drag queen, the transvestite, and the transsexual as possible heroes for the saving of humanity as these human beings have yet to be categorized, classified and binded into a fixed identity that erases their humanity. I don't think these people actually are any more privileged than the rest of humankind and remain somehow more sentient than the rest of us. As Leonard Cohen wrote in his song, "Everybody knows the boat is sinking."
Finally, Barry Sanders does not make really clear what it was human beings had in the Dark Ages of the Roman Catholic Church that they lost when science and Darwin took the reins. Surely, science and Darwin ripped the veil off religion, but what was it about religious faith that made human beings more human than they are today? He doesn't say.