And a provocative book about the Promised Land.

There is a maxim harder and harder to take to heart. Essayist Joseph Epstein expresses this best. We are told from grade school on not to judge a book by its cover, he writes, “but with so many books in the world, what else are we to do—read the entire work? Let them, I say, make better covers.” Publishers, mindful of money if not aesthetics, compete to do exactly that.

But some truth remains in that tired maxim. Writers and thinkers concerned about the state of childhood have published a spate of relevant books in the past two or three years. All of them have pretty covers. But some of them are worth reading more than others.

As an overview of what is happening to our understanding of childhood, Marie Winn’s Children Without Childhood (Pantheon, 1983) gets my vote to go first on anyone’s reading list. Speaking primarily from a sociological base, Winn calmly but passionately surveys the cultural terrain and finds childhood, on several counts, pushed to the cliff’s edge. She explores, with fairness, the impact of Freud, film, television, teenage literature, childhood sexuality, and economic pressures that have pushed many mothers into the marketplace. Winn is not out to blame anyone for the predicament of childhood; she recognizes that there are several causes, but that we can still make some sense of how we got where we are. The book is strengthened by the dozens of interviews with children and parents Winn conducted while writing. The interviews keep her close to the day-to-day world, and her theorizing, when offered, is consistently plausible.

Neil Postman, in The Disappearance of Childhood (Delacorte, 1982), writes from a much narrower base than Winn. Postman is a communications ...

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