Golden Age

Learned Vol. 2, Issue 46

Last fall, The Folio Society, a book publishing company specializing in beautiful editions of classic books, put out a collection of early Marvel comic books called Marvel: The Golden Age 1939 - 1949. It's a handsome volume and a really interesting artifact of pop culture even at $225 USD. And, someday, it will look even more handsome on my bookshelf right next to my collection of books about other Golden Ages - Hollywood, Disney, Sail, Art Deco, Architecture, Jazz and so on and on.

All of which begs the questions, what is a golden age and how do we know when we're in one?

Yachts on a summer cruise published by Currier & Ives, 1871. (During the Golden Age of Sail.)

A golden age is, obviously, the good years of (whatever). We use it to shorthand the idea that this time is the time when all the best ideas are being formulated and expounded upon. When innovation and creation are at their height and the positives so far outweigh any negatives that things are idyllic. This often happens a short time (relatively) after the invention or discovery of new technologies or the establishment of a new movement (like jazz or impressionism). People have had enough time to lay down enough rules that they are now free to really explore what can happen in those constraints.

A good example might be that of t.v. The first golden age of television is loosely defined as the post-World War II era when thousands of families suddenly had the money and the leisure time to enjoy t.v. The fact that audiences were now far more present than they had been before brought in a fresh wave of creativity bringing new show formats, better writing, and more interesting visual effects.

Fast forward a few decades and we find ourselves in the midst of television's second golden age, this time brought on by advances in digital distribution. Now that t.v. producers had new ways to get their shows to people, different forms of funding arose that lead to better written, more visually appealing shows, often on demand. (Think about all those early 2000s HBO shows like The Sopranos and Deadwood as well as the more fondly remembered network shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica.)

The Japanese Footbridge (1899) by Claude Monet. (During the Golden Age of Impressionism.)

It's the second question that's a lot harder to answer - how do we know when we're living in a golden age?

I'm not sure we really can. The phrase golden age comes from Greek mythology. Civilization went through five phases, with the golden age being the first and best time. To me, that signifies that a golden age has to be viewed in retrospect, that nostalgia is an integral part of what makes any given period a golden one. Without that rosy look backward, we can't really say what was good or bad or whether one outweighed the other from in the midst of it.

Take the present moment, 2020. There are a lot of good things out in the world right now. Climate change is beginning to be taken seriously as a global threat and combated as such, diseases are being eradicated, and other issues are being addressed and eliminated through international, community-driven efforts. On the other hand, well, it's 2020 and there are still people fighting to have their voice heard and a new disease is trying very hard to become a pandemic. So, thirty years from now, are we going to look back on these times as good or bad? It's impossible to say and depends very much on what happens next.

In the meantime, Wikipedia tells us that we are currently in the golden age of viral videos, which means there must be a new cat video going around the social media sphere. Let's go find it.



From Cambridge Dictionary:

a period of time, sometimes imaginary, when everyone was happy, or when a particular art, business, etc. was very successful

From Mirriam-Webster:

a period of great happiness, prosperity, and achievement


From Wikipedia:

The ancient Greek philosopher Hesiod introduced the term in his Works and Days, when referring to the period when the "Golden Race" of man lived. This was part of five fold division of Ages of Man, starting with the Golden age, then the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, the Age of Heroes (including the Trojan War), and finally, the current Iron Age. The concept was further refined by Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, into the four "metal ages" (golden, silver, bronze, and iron). (1000×100)

Notable Events of 1999:

You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:

More information can be found on the About page, or by contacting me through emailtwitter, or instagram. Thank you for reading. (1000×100)


I’ve come late to the party again, but there’s a new-to-me British panel/game show called Taskmaster that is putting its back catalog on YouTube and I’m a bit obsessed with it.

The premise is simple enough: five comedians are given an odd, pointless task by the eponymous Taskmaster, comedian Greg Davis, and are then awarded points based on how well they fulfill the task.

The show is a master (heh) class on creative thinking and problem-solving. However, what’s really fascinating is that as the series progress and contestants become aware of how previous contestants have read between the lines, creatively interpreted, or thought so far outside the box as to come full circle, the tasks themselves must become more creative and clearly-written as well. This battle, between explicit goal-setting and innovative problem-solving, is worthy of several dozen TED talks, at least.

Here are three favorite clips:

Next time: All that glitters. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.

Share Learned

Loading more posts…