Neil Postman on the Printed Word
   
      Excerpted f rom The American Promise
(T/C Christensen, eds.)
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"Democracy," wrote Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber in their book Struggle for Democracy, "is deeply rooted in talk." These roots reach back to Colonial times. In the struggles of those years, "the power of the written word proved to be a weapon for democracy more potent that the sword. By the 1650s, Puritan preachers were successfully creating new and zealous converts to their egalitarian religion simply by putting books into the hands of scullery maids and manswervants."
    Neil Postman, in his Amusing Ourselves to Death, elaborates on this theme. In colonial America, he observes, "reading was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people. A thriving, classless reading culture developed. . . .

    "Where such a keen taste for books prevailed among the general population, we need not be surprised that Thomas Paine's Common Sense, published on January 10, 1776, sold more than 100,000 copies by March of the same year. In 1985, a book would have to sell eight million copies (in two months) to match the proportion of the population Paine's book attracted. . . .

    "The only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today's America is the Superbowl. . . .

    "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. This point cannot be stressed enough, especially for those who are reluctant to acknowledge profound differences in the media environments of then and now. One sometimes hears it said, for example, that there is more printed matter available today than ever before, which is undoubtedly true. But from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play. There was no television. Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor and the measure of all discourse."

 

 

 

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