On Reading “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Chapter 3
In “Typographic America,” Postman turns to history to make his point that “the form in which ideas are expressed affects what those ideas will be” (31). He argues a point that I have not seen elsewhere: that colonial Americans “were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who have ever lived” (31).
He finds that the literacy rate for men was between 89 and 95 percent, “quite probably the highest concentration of literate males to be found anywhere in the world at that time” (31). The literacy rate for women was as high as 62 percent. (The male literacy rate in England, for comparison, did not exceed 40 percent.)
He finds an abundance of schools in the colonies, a devotion to books and pamphlets and a reverence for authors. Of particular interest to Postman: Reading was not an elitist activity. It was a “thriving, classless reading culture” (34). Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in 1776, sold 100,000 copies in two months and may have reached 400,000 people. “The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today’s America is the Superbowl” — probably happily misspelled by Postman (35).
Postman also is intrigued by the fact that Thomas Paine had little formal schooling but could write eloquently and forcefully on political philosophy.
He points out the “near universality” of lecture halls in almost every town in early America, a result of the Lyceum Movement, devoted to adult education (39–40). He sees the lectures as an extension and reinforcement of the print tradition and quotes an amazed observer of the time that “youthful workmen, the over-tired artisan, the worn-out factory girl,” all rushed after work to “the hot atmosphere of a crowded lecture room” (40).
He says, “The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly” (41) — no radio, movies, films, records or television competed with the written word.
Many readers might find the somewhat detailed history of American newspapers and printing to be overkill for Postman’s argument. But one can feel his admiration and reverence for those typographic times. And he makes his points:
“The point all this is leading to is that from its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was as dominated by the printed word and an oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of” (40–41).
And then his larger point: “form will determine the nature of content” (42).
To support his point, he finds a “McLuhanesque” quote from Karl Marx in The German Ideology. Marx wrote: “Is the Iliad possible when the printing press and even printing machines exist? It is not inevitable that with the emergence of the press, the singing and the telling and the muse cease; that is, the conditions necessary for epic poetry disappear” (43).
The oral tradition produced the Iliad. The print tradition would not have.
Marx did not pursue the thought but Postman, as the chapter concludes, sets the task as his own: “to explore how the press worked as a metaphor and an epistemology to create a serious and rational pubic conversation, from which we have now been so dramatically separated” (43).
Readers of today, no matter their political perspective, will surely feel the same separation from “serious and rational public conversation” and will follow Postman as he takes up his task.