Books: Gunpowder of the Mind

What will be the significance of the written word now that newer mass media, less demanding psycho­logically and yet perhaps more potent politically, have developed
Austria - Admont Abbey_Library - 1381

by David Riesman

Inventions are as much the mother of necessity as the reverse, and the Western world as we know it now is inconceivable without print—just as World War II could hardly have been fought without the tele­phone and the IBM machine. This is one reason why it is hard for the print-raised generations to contemplate the decline of reading relative to the rise of other media, for each medium of communication not only brings in its wake an elite attuned to its potentialities but alters the forms of perception, the bonds of sympathy, and the channels of con­flict that hold a society together.

I should like to present here certain suggestions, highly tentative and exploratory, concerning three questions: first, what are the differ­ences between cultures which depend entirely on the spoken word and those which depend on print; second, what will be the significance of the written word now that newer mass media, less demanding psycho­logically and yet perhaps more potent politically, have developed; third, what is likely to happen in those countries where the tradition of books is not fully established and where the new media are already having a decisive impact.

In Ruth Underhill’s transcript of the autobiography of a Papago Indian woman are some passages which convey a sense of the impact of the spoken word in a culture where no other modes of communica­tion compete with it. One passage goes as follows:

The men from all the villages met at Basket Cap Mountain, and there my father made them speeches, sitting with his arms folded and talking low as all great men do. Then they sang war songs. . . . Many, many songs they sang but I, a woman, cannot tell you all. I know that they made the enemy blind and dizzy with their singing and that they told the gopher to gnaw their arrows. And I know that they called on our dead warriors who have turned into owls and live in the Apache country to come and tell them where the enemy were.

In the many passages of this sort that one can find in ethnographic accounts, we become aware of the immense emotional force that can be harnessed by the spoken word in such a group—so powerful here that at least in fancy it can shatter the morale of a distant enemy. Implicit here is the fact that a society dependent on oral traditions and oral communications is, by our standard, a slow-paced one: there is time enough, for grownups as well as children, to roll back the carpet of memories; nobody has to miss the ceremonies in order to catch the 8:05 the next morning from Scarsdale—or to run the train itself. To be sure, the teen-age girls today who learn by heart the lyrics of popular songs do seem to have time enough on their hands to memorize verses, but even they must learn a new repertory every year and will surely not, as parents, sing these songs of their dating years to their own children.

What I have said needs to be qualified in several respects familiar to those of you who have done group singing informally. I do have the impression, strengthened by assiduous reading of juke-box labels, that there is a kind of sediment of tunes and ballads—“Stormy Weather,” for example—which binds at least the jazz generations into an occa­sional songfest, more or less barber-shop-quartet style. Then there are the folk songs and madrigals sung by the college-educated, such as the highbrow variants of “Boola Boola” and “10,000 Men of Harvard.” But for none of these songs is it terribly important to know the right words—the lyrics are not altogether meaningless even, I suppose, in the so-called “nonsense” songs, but neither do they encapsulate the history of the tribe or the patterns of heroic behavior.

What I am getting at is that the spoken or sung word is particu­larly impressive when it monopolizes the symbolic environment; but once books have entered that environment the social organization can never be the same again. Books bring with them detachment and a critical attitude that is not possible in a society dependent on the spoken word. We can occasionally have second thoughts about a speech, but we cannot hear it, as we can read a book, backwards as well as forwards—that is, the writer can be checked up on in a way that the speaker cannot be.

People tend to remember best the things they have felt most deeply. The memorable words in a culture wholly dependent on the spoken word will often be those most charged with group feeling; and we would expect communication to keep alive in an individual the childhood sense of dependence, childhood’s terrors and elations, and something of its awe for the old.

The shift to a literate culture, historically decisive as it is, does not of course occur all at once; only a tiny minority could read prior to the age of print, and the reading of manuscripts altered styles of communication rather less than one might today think. For one thing, manuscripts, having to be slowly deciphered, promoted memorization, which in turn promoted arguments by quotation and commentary. Manuscripts were often read aloud and, with their beautiful illumina­tions, were regarded not simply as rationalistic vehicles of knowledge but also as shared artifacts. By exteriorizing, by making palpable, the processes of thinking and discussion, they promoted individuation only partially, while also promoting adherence to tradition.

The book, like an invisible monitor, helps liberate the reader from his group and its emotions and allows the contemplation of alternative responses and the trying on of new emotions. Max Weber has stressed the importance of the merchant’s account book in rationalizing the merchant and his commerce; and other historians have made familiar the role of the printed Bible in encouraging dissident sects to challenge the authority of the Roman Church—indeed, to challenge the given forms of social life itself. At the same time, while the printed book helped people to break away from their family circle and parish, it helped link them into noncontiguous associations of true believers.

Arthur E. Morgan, speaking in Search for Purpose of his child­hood among small-town folk of limited horizons, remarks, “This library [in the town] was like foster parents to me.” Thomas and Znaniecki describe an analogous process in their book on The Polish Peasant in Europe and America; the Polish peasant who learned to read and write became identified with the urban world of progress and enlightenment, of ideology and utopia, even while physically still in the peasant world. This identification had many of the elements of a conversion, print itself and the world it opened up being a kind of gospel. Today, in this country of near-universal literacy, we have forgotten the enthusiasm for print which can burst on people newly literate: the “each one teach one” movements of Mexico, the Philippines, and elsewhere; the voracity for books in the Soviet Union and other recently industrialized lands.

Among the highly educated, and in the countries of long-established literacy, there is little comparable enthusiasm. We have become less excited about books as such, or even about “good books,” and instead are more discriminating in terms of fields, of tastes, of literary fashions. Our world, as we know all too well, is full of many other things which compete with books, so that some of that minority who were avid readers as children, shutting out parents and peers with faces (as the latter would charge) buried in a book, are now buried as adults in activities that exclude books or push them to the periphery of attention.

In any case, our experience in recent years with mass literacy and mass communications has generally been disillusioning—much as with universal suffrage. Thus, we no longer believe, as numerous thoughtful people did in the 1920s, that radio offers a second chance for stimulat­ing adult education and civic literacy. Likewise, despite a few shining hours, few observers today regard educational TV as anything like an adequate counterweight to the endlessly smiling, relaxed informalities and (for many in the audience) lack of challenge of low-pressure uneducational TV. Paradoxically, however, the coming of TV has given new possibilities back to the radio in the bedroom, for the TV audience is now the mass audience, and the radio can appeal to the wish for privacy, and to specialized tastes and minority audiences. With rare exceptions, it is now the massness of the mass media, rather than their mediating and individuating power, which frightens and depresses many educated people—so much so that we frequently lose faith in enlightenment itself as a goal, let alone in the three easy lessons with which our predecessors sought to reach it. Sometimes, in fact, despair goes to such lengths that the writers of bombast on behalf of books, as if in answer to the spreaders of bombast on behalf of TV, are apt to urge that if only people would read books once more, long and serious books that require close attention, the evils of the modern world would be undone and we would be saved.

The fact is, however, that books, whatever their liberating power in society as a whole, can be used, of course, in nonliberating ways. For instance, a child can be forced into slavery to print through the fanaticism of parents or pedagogues. Indeed, we tend to consider the education of John Stuart Mill by his high-pressure father, in which he learned to read at three and studied the classics before he was ten, as monstrous as it is amazing. We think the French and the Orthodox Jews are cruel to make small children mind their lessons with no time out for sports, let alone for cultivating the “whole child.”

But few are the American homes today, or the schools and col­leges (even those run by Catholic orders), where these patterns still prevail; on the contrary, both home and school seek to come to terms with life at its most unbookish (just as many books for children—and TV shows, too—are not in search of fantasy but in search of docu­mentary detail).

While the classics are having a small revival at a few colleges and schools, the more general situation is that Americans, with increasing world power, will insist that everyone learn to speak American while not compelling our children to learn any other language—and in many schools not even our own in any full measure. Yet languages, like systems of musical notation, must be carried in the bones and bodies of the living if the accomplishments and experiences of the dead are not to be lost to us. It may be that some residual feeling of this sort—some fear that children may be growing up as barbarians and away from us of the older generations—may be one element behind the ominous success of Rudolf Flesch’s demagogic best seller, Why Johnny Can’t Read, a book that would lose the exaggerated edge of its power if its readers could read, or were not too frightened to keep their wits about them. Flesch and his followers never ask the crucial question I am asking here: namely, what distribution of not only reading skills but reading enthusiasms, for what systems of notation (including music, languages, and mathematics), is desirable if we are not only to pass on the heritage—the world’s library of art and imagination—but also to contribute to it? They take it for granted that Johnny should read just because John Alden or John Adams did read; in the case of most of the reactionary critics of our public schools who are riding so high today, such terms as “heritage” are merely snob tags, status labels, which they can use to pull rank on schoolteachers, educationists, psychological counselors, and other relatively defenseless people. I suspect that many such critics would like to restore drill and to make reading more of a chore than it needs to be as a sublimated form of hazing the young, though some chore and bore elements will certainly be part of any edu­cational program which aims to reach all who can possibly be reached by books or by any other media which connect people with a non­contiguous world, the world of yesterday and tomorrow as well as of the here and now.

Certainly, in an era of abundance we can afford to read books for pleasure, and it may on the whole be a good thing that a boy in school or a soldier in camp can unself-consciously pull out a pocketbook with­out feeling that there is anything esoteric or status-labeled in the act. Even so, casual pleasures in our society, hard as they often are to come by, will not suffice to absorb young people’s energies and aspirations. On the contrary, young people need at some time in their lives to extend themselves, to work at the height of their as yet untapped powers (indeed, lacking better ways, some seek to do this in forms the society defines as delinquency). Since the world’s work no longer offers this opportunity for exertion for most nonfarm Americans, we may think it fortunate—though in some respects arbitrary—that the world’s store­house of culture unfailingly does. While we can perhaps imagine a post-literature culture in which people are challenged primarily by other media than print and musical scores, and no doubt we have al­ready a culture in which even in the most bookish strata many media cooperate, yet at the moment I think it is not just prejudice and snob­bery which lead us to rely heavily on books as our traditional badge of enlightenment and on libraries as the great storehouse of our culture.

These problems I have been discussing—and I cannot emphasize too strongly the tentativeness of what I have said—would be less im­portant and less apparently insoluble if the book, and other printed matter, stood at the end of the road of social development, as was true from the fifteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. The rule of black print on white paper may be said to mark the epoch of the rise and increasing influence of the middle class, the class of clerks and bookkeepers, merchants and engineers, instruction-givers and instruction-readers, the class of the time-attentive, the future-oriented, the mobile. Reading and education were the highroads this class made use of to rise in the world and to move about in it during the great periods of colonization.

Even the novel, denounced as frivolous and sensuous by the Puri­tans, had an important function in the changing society. I think not so much of its use as a device for reform and civic adult education, like Oliver Twist or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as of its less obvious use as a device by which people might prepare themselves for novel contacts and novel life-situations, a form of what psychologists term “anticipatory socialization”—that is, a preparation in imagination for playing roles that might emerge in one’s later career. In fact, the very conception of life implicit in the notion of a career is facilitated by the dramatic structure of the novel, especially the Bildungsroman, with its protago­nist, its interest in motive, its demand on the reader that he project himself into the experiences portrayed.

The rise of the newer media of communication has coincided with a certain loss of power by the older, print-oriented middle class. Yellow journalism, coming on top of universal suffrage, did begin to shake that hegemony. Indeed, the very term “yellow journalism” is significant as marking a change from the monotone of black on white (just as the fact that only 10 per cent of the cars turned out this year are black and all the rest are technicolor says a good deal about our loss of Puritan inhibitions). The comic book, also, is part of this same revolution. And of course the movies and broadcasting, while not dis­placing the book, shake its monopoly and with it the monopoly of the middle class.

But the consequences of these shifts in the focus of attention and in the emotional impact of the media differ very much depending on whether one speaks of a country where print has long been institu­tionalized or of a country which had previously been largely illiterate. In the former, the shifts of power tend to be subtle and unclimactic. Thus, it is not a major revolution in America that TV has made pre­adolescent children even more hep than they were before, more apt to be one up on their parents even about politics, more ready psychologi­cally to empathize with other conditions of man than their own. But in the less industrially advanced countries the shift can be explosive. A study (done by Daniel Lerner at Columbia University) of foreign radio listeners in seven Middle East countries is illuminating. In many villages such people as the grocer who has a radio, or the young bus driver who has seen movies in the capital and can bring news of the great world, are displacing the village elders in positions of leadership. To rise in such a way, these upstarts do not need to acquire the stern discipline typical for the print-oriented person; rather, they need the same equipment American children have who go about in Davy Crockett suits—a willingness, often quite passive and unstrenuous, to let fancy roam at the dictates of the mass media. The political parties of the Middle East are now beginning to make use of this willingness, and as we all know, programs can be fanatically pursued which prom­ise to supply Cadillacs and cinemas to peasants who are told they can have these things without working, just as Americans do, if only they will vote and believe. Thus, in the illiterate masses there tends to be created a new kind of literacy, an often terrifying emotional and political fluency, with all the emancipations of print and hardly any of its restrictions and disciplines.

The movies, of course, are a boundary-annihilating form, easily transmissible past linguistic and cultural barriers (as well as barriers of literacy). They may also be, as Arnold Hauser suggests in The Social History of Art, a democratizing form because of their mobility, the absence of traditional stage conventions and proprieties. Art historians have recently noted that when Renaissance painters shifted the Virgin Mary from frontface to profile it marked a decline of Catholic reli­giosity and a less devout approach to the Trinity. The camera can be even more impudent, and can put aesthetic laws to use in all kinds of ways, leading the audience, as Hauser says, to the events, rather than leading and presenting the events to them, with the voyeuristic inti­macy which we can see in such a film as Hitchcock’s Rear Window. A movie can tell its story as though we are telling it to ourselves, or as though we are actually dreaming it; it can force us to identify with its chosen moods and people. The camera, by moving around, subtly invites us to embrace one character and exclude another; to look up and feel awe of a hero or fear of a villain; to look down and feel contempt or pity. A sidelong glance of the camera alerts us for trouble; a right-to-left pan, reversing the righthandedness Hermann Weill discusses in his book on symmetry, invests people and places with a spooky feeling. I need not labor the catalogue of the director’s powers, aided as they are by the near-hypnotic effect of the concentrated brightness of the screen while other sights and sounds are at a low ebb. The movie is the novel in motion; it is potentially the least rationalistic, the most subjectivized medium. And like the broadcast, the rally, or the fireside council of the tribal chief, it demands attention now, this minute, in this time and at that place; unlike a book, it cannot wait for your mood.

Where the movies and the book are both in circulation, the written word and the screen image compete in making our sensibility mobile and empathic, though for many of us even now the movies have pretty well replaced the novel as the powerful medium for anticipatory socialization. Conceivably, when every man has his own movie camera and home projector, and his own movie library as we now have our record collections, he will become more critical and less vulnerable—this being the usual effect of do-it-yourself. Likewise, study of the movies, as it is encouraged by some of the documentary film societies, can help put movie goers in the director’s place, permitting them to be more critical of him.

But all this betokens a society like ours in which radio and film are cumulative media for the better-educated strata—a society in which a certain uneasy balance of powers exists among the media, a society in which the librarians have been vigilant of freedom, while the movie magnates have generally failed to fight down their fears of the Legion of Decency and the other censoring groups who to some degree have tempted the films in the direction of sadism in exchange for the often circumvented pieties surrounding sex. In the Middle East, where the movies and radio arrived ahead of the book, there is no such balance—though I suppose Turkey comes paradoxically closest, where Kemal Ataturk detached the young from even the literate old by imposing the Roman script; here the print-oriented are not simply the students of the Koran but are up-to-date and Westernized.

Oral communication keeps people together, binds people to each (other, while print in our day loosens these bonds, creates space around ‘people, even isolates them in some ways. People who would simply have been deviants in a preliterate tribe, misunderstanding and misunderstood, can through books establish a wider identity—can under­stand and even undermine the enemies of home and hearth and herd. While the geographic migrations of preliterate peoples have something in common with the incomprehending movement of flocks of deer, the readers of the Age of Discovery were prepared mentally for some of the experiences of their geographic mobility—they had at any rate left home in imagination even if they had not roamed as far or among as (strange people as they were actually to meet. The bookish education of these inner-directed men helped harden them for voyages; they wanted to convert the heathen, civilize them, trade with them. If any­one changed in the encounter, it would be the heathen, while they, as they moved about the globe or up the social ladder, remained very much the same men. The epitome of this was the Englishman in the tropics who, all alone, dressed for dinner with home-guard ceremonial, toasted the Queen, and, six months late, read with a proper sense of outrage the leader in the London Times. His ties with the world of print helped steady him in his course far from home.

Today, the successors of these men are men molded as much by the mass media outside their formal education as by their schooling; men who are more public-relations-minded than ambitious; men soft­ened for encounters rather than hardened for voyages. If they move about the globe it is often to win the love of the natives or to try to understand their mores, rather than to exploit them for gain or the glory of God. Meanwhile, as we have seen, the natives (as they used to be called) are themselves in many cases on the move, and the sharp differences between societies dependent on the oral tradition and those dependent on print are tending to be less important with the coming of radio and film. Often the decisive difference is among the peasants themselves within a country now moving out of the stage of oral tra­dition—the difference between those who listen to the radio and go to movies and those who shut these things out as the voice of the Devil or as simply irrelevant for them. In the Middle East studies it was found that those peasants who listened to Radio Moscow or the BBC or the VOA already had, or perhaps acquired, a different sensibility from those who did not.

It is too soon, however, to say whether the epoch of print will be utterly elided in the underdeveloped countries, just as, with the coming of electrical and atomic energy, they may skip the stage of coal and water power. Conceivably, the movies and broadcasting will eventually help to awaken a hunger for print, when their own novelty is worn off and when they come to be used as tie-ins with print—as in Lyman Bryson’s Invitation to Learning. Just as the barbarians of Europe in the Middle Ages pulled themselves up by Greek bootstraps, so the non­industrial countries can for a long time draw on the storehouse of West­ern science and technology, including the science of social organiza­tion; and there are still enough inner-directed men in our society who are willing to go out and help build the armies of Iran and the fac­tories of Istanbul.

In this connection, it is striking that the Soviet Union, paying at least nominal heed to the scriptures of Marx and Lenin, has created what is in some ways a replica of the Victorian industrial world rather than the modern consumer world. As a result, treatises on Marxism and I Hollywood movies may be seen as alternative lures to the pre­industrial nations, with national pride voting for steel plants and Karl Marx, and personal taste for cars, Coca-Cola, and the stereotype of America. To be sure, Communism may seem the quickest way to the consumers’ utopia, with its apparent power to mow down all vested interests, including one’s own. I should parenthetically add that the appeal to the consumer mentality in the East, the glamour of America’s image, is almost never the result of our official propaganda concerning the alleged “American Way of Life,” but is rather a by-product of the characteristic American virtuosity in the newer media and the products of American enterprise they bespeak.

It is apparent that the mass media, like other forms of technological innovation, bring about new polarizations in society and between socie­ties. The readers and the nonreaders, the listeners and the nonlisteners, may belong to the same castes, the same economic and social groupings, and yet may slowly diverge as they form different values and tastes and turns of mind. In this way, feudal and other hierarchical forms are upset, with the spread of literacy beyond a small group of clerks; and it is perhaps no accident that self-taught and self-made men like Ben Franklin and Andrew Carnegie should have put such emphasis on libraries: in their day, books were the gunpowder of the mind, the way of nonmilitary glory and social and intellectual mobility.

Today, in contrast, there are many thoughtful Americans who despair of the role of the book as a vehicle either of social enlighten­ment or of personal mobility. They point to the low percentage of Americans (compared with Danes or Japanese, Britishers or Germans) who ever read a book when through with school; they point to the rarity of book stores (even when we include those that sell mainly greeting cards) and to the financial crisis of the libraries (not to speak of the frequent pressure on them to censor their shelves). The newer media seem in tune with the times in a number of ways; they often require less close attention than a book, and they are “social” in two senses: they are usually viewed in company, and they present celebri­ties or “just folks” in a kind of pseudo intimacy with the viewer—so much so that for TV performers “sincerity” has become the symbol both of what they admire and of what they are cynical about. Discussion, as in this article, of historical developments sometimes engenders a feeling of inevitability, and a cause, such as that of books, is declared lost because not everyone votes for it and because research brings us the latest returns from the worldwide competitive election campaigns of the several media.

Yet one’s own pleasure in books does not rest, beyond a certain break-even point, on the numbers who share such pleasures, but rather on the whole quality of life in a culture. What books can do for that quality, in broadening horizons, in encouraging fantasy, in promoting individuation, can in some measure be done by other media—witness the Third Programme in England, the great post-war Italian films, and some television drama in this country. The newer media can be used to promote empathy and vicariousness in terms of emotional depth, and not simply in terms of political nationalism and consumer-goods sophis­tication. Even so, what the newer media can seldom do is to promote privacy. As I have just remarked, the people on the TV screen are “company” for the viewer, even if they don’t seek to make him a pseudo participant along with the rubberneck studio audience. The people in a book are “company” for the reader in a different sense: to “see” them the reader must make an effort, and he must do so—whatever guidance he gets from critics, teachers, and friends—in relative isolation (in a recent cartoon, one person at a cocktail party asks another if he’s read a certain book, and the latter answers “not personally”). In a world which threatens us with a surfeit of people, this role of the book becomes again as important as in the preliterate tribes where, also, there was no escape from others; and, as America becomes one vast continental pueblo, the book—whatever its residual trajectory as a revolutionary social force—comes into its own as a guarantor of that occasional apart­ness which makes togetherness viable.

Atlantic Monthly, December, 1957


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!