Review: The Times of the Eighties

The Times of the Eighties edited by William Grimes


In 2005, MTV ran a program, undoubtedly influenced by the success of That 70s Show, called The 70s House. It was a reality competition where twelve contestants parted with the modern world, lived in a simulcrum of the seventies 24/7, and competed to see who could be “the most 70s”. I never saw it, but when I heard about it, as a tender, awful-haired fourteen-year-old, I daydreamed about the possibility of a The 80s House, which I would undoubtedly dominate. Such a show never surfaced, of course, but something like The Times of the Eighties would have been very useful to prep for my audition. When I saw it on NetGalley, I couldn’t hit the request button fast enough.

The Times of the Eighties is a collection of newspaper articles contemporary to the decade from The New York Times, curated by Times editor and writer William Grimes. Sorted like a traditional issue of The New York Times, these articles cover national, international, business, science, health, food, sports, and, of course, entertainment. Each section is introduced by Grimes, to give readers an overview of what happened in each category, but the articles are allowed to speak for themselves, ranging from events deemed noteworthy at the time and events noteworthy to the modern reader. Every page is accompanied by contemporary photos from both The New York Times and other sources.

Have you seen The Birdcage (the American adaptation of the French film La Cage Aux Folles)? There’s a scene where the son, Val, asks his biological father Armand if he reads the newspaper, exasperated that his father has no clue who the extremely visibly conservative politician father of his bride-to-be is. Armand assures Val that he does: “Of course. Variety, the Arts and Leisure section of the Times…” I read newspapers the same way Armand does, although I do try to at least glance over political issues. And because The Times of the Eighties is essentially Eighties: The Newspaper, I kind of read it the same way. Readers, I must confess—I occasionally skimmed.

I am not a fan of sportsball, alright? Not even my love of the eighties can make me love sports. I did pause for a few Olympics articles, but otherwise, I was much more interested in the other stuff.

I mean, did you know that the wreckage of the Titanic was discovered in the eighties? I did not know that, and now the timing of Titanic the movie makes way more sense to me. Did you know Martin Luther King Day started in the eighties? Did you know the eighties marked one of the first gay rights victories in Denmark, as well as films starting to include same-sex relationships? (They are all on my movies to watch list. John Hurt is in one of them. I love John Hurt.) I realize I am both dating myself as a child of the nineties and making people feel old, but I constantly crave context. It’s why I read and watch as much as I humanly can. I’m trying to understand the world under my feet and the history at my back. Something like this is much more humanizing than simply reading a Wikipedia article. While the formatting of the book is much more modern, it’s still quite a treat to have access to a wide sampling of newspaper articles from the eighties without resorting to microfilm or ponying up for an all-access The New York Times subscription.

Still, it’s not totally humanizing. Seeking to capitalize on nostalgia (unfortunately, they’re a bit late: the cycle of nostalgia dictates that the current nostalgic generation is the nineties—it’s always the decade twenty years before, so thirty-somethings can be nostalgic for their youth without feeling old), most of these articles simply report on major events, instead of dissecting them. There are precious few opinions and editorials collected and, as much fun as tracking the media’s response to Madonna is, I wanted to see a bit more of that. There’s an article by William Safire on the brutal language of business, a piece by Joyce Carol Oates on Mike Tyson, and a charming review of Le Cirque: all three allow you to catch the taste of the era a bit better than straight reporting on Reagan’s inauguration. I’m a huge fan of the eighties because of its excess, consciously constructed artificiality, and almost violent sense of hope; small details like this evoke that in spades. But, then again, I do read a lot more texts about the eighties than most people. Call and response no longer works on me.

Bottom line: The New York Times’ Times of the Eighties is a nostalgia bomb for any eighties fan. More advanced eighties fans, however, might find it too straightforward for their palettes. If you’d like.

I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.

The New York Times’ Times of the Eighties comes out on June 4th—tomorrow!

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