As they age, are copied and are overhyped, inventions and innovations succumb to planned obsolescence. Stainless-steel refrigerators have been replaced by bright-hued retro-'50s models. People don't wash their "new" Volkswagen Beetles every weekend anymore. Last summer's hyperexpensive Siemens slider cell phone went on sale before Christmas at Best Buy.
Virtually nothing extends that shelf life, even if these breakthroughs are as serious as, say, Einstein's Theory of Relativity or a vaccine for anthrax. Take fast food, penicillin, entering rehab—say after me, "Did Whitney Houston leave rehab early?" in your best Pat O'Brien voice—TV dinners, even sliced bread.
Once upon a time, sliced bread wasn't "the next best thing since sliced bread"—it was the best thing. But we've moved on as a culture, and what we've left behind is the ample subject of Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger's Poplorica, a $23 hardcover just out from HarperResource.
The duo—Smith is senior editor of the Los Angeles Times Magazine; Kiger is a widely published freelance author—offers a conversant, highly readable popular history of crazes, crazies and their creations.
They examine everything from the Edsel—Ford Motor Co.'s legendary late-'50s flop that cost $1.6 billion in modern dollars to develop—to TV dinners to super-absorbent diapers to Betty Ford (her addiction and her clinic).
Anyone can write a pop-culture book—and way too many do—but Poplorica is best in its relentless pursuit of the ultimate truth. The authors, for instance, point out that air conditioning helped elect both Reagan and Dubya by making the Sunbelt states inhabitable year-round and increasing that region's voting power. In fact, they write darkly, "Every elected president since JFK has either been born or made his home in the Sunbelt."
In their essay on the modern, smaller, super-absorbent diaper—helping stamp out leaky babies everywhere—Kiger and Smith expose the dy-dee doomsayers who've consistently exaggerated the number of disposables in landfills.
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And they devote an entire chapter to today's pervasive stealth marketing techniques—salesmen who don't seem to actually sell you anything, product placement in the movies, online sales-bots that clog Internet chatrooms with annoying references to the Gap.
My main gripes: I got tired of being bombarded by factoids at the end of each chapter—even though they reminded me of the monthly index in Harper's, which I like. And the authors said E.T., the Reese's Pieces-lovin' alien, was green. I screamed like Drew Barrymore. Aliens haven't been green for years—the Mars Attacks!remake aside. E.T. was as brown as the sepia tint in those wretched Judy Garland/M&Ms commercials.
Other than that, it was nice to read about the culture behind all the pop.
Poplorica by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger; HarperResource. Hardcover, 284 pages, $22.95.