Notes philosophy

Chapter 3: Typographic America (Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Chapter 3: Typographic America

The Bible was the central reading matter in all households – Protestants shared Luther’s belief that printing was “God’s highest and extremest act of Grace, whereby the business of the Gospel is driven forward.”

But these people did not just read the Bible or religious books, they read many nonreligious books.

Probate records indicate that 60 percent of the estates in Middlesex County between the years 1654 and 1699 contained books, all but 8 percent of them including more than the Bible. In fact, between 1682 and 1685, Boston’s leading bookseller imported 3,421 books from one English dealer, most of these nonreligious books. The meaning of this fact may be appreciated when one adds that these books were intended for consumption by approximately 75,000 people then living in the northern colonies.The modern modern equivalent would be ten million books.

A great epistemological shift occurred in the sixteenth century, where all forms of knowledge had been transferred to the printed page.

About this shift, Lewis Mumford writes, “More than any other device the printed book released people from the domination of the immediate and the local; … print made a greater impression than actual events…. To exist was to exist in print: the rest of the world tended gradually to become more shadowy. Learning became book-leaning.”

There was such a keen taste for books among the general population – Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold more than 100,000 copies by March of the same year. A book would have to sell eight million in 1985 to match this proportion of the population.

The proliferation of newspapers in all the Colonies was accompanied by the rapid diffusion of pamphlets and broadsides. Alexis de Tocqueville took note of this fact in his Democracy in America, published in 1835: “In America,” he wrote, “parties do not write books to combat each other’s opinions, but pamphlets, which are circulated for a day with incredible rapidity and then expire.”

Up until the nineteenth century, America was dominated by the printed word. This situation was only in part a legacy of the Protestant tradition. America was found by intellectuals – this rarely occurs in history.

Richard Hofstadter writes, “The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.”

The written word is considered serious because meaning demands to be understood. A written sentence requires the author to say something, and the reader to understand what is said – both are struggling with semantic meaning, the most serious challenge to the intellect.

Particularly when it comes to reading, this is true, since authors are not always reliable. They can abuse logic and over-generalize, they can lie and become confused. The reader must be armed with a level of intellectual readiness. Reading by nature is serious business and an essentially rational activity.

Public figures were known by their written words, not by oratory or their appearance. It is likely that most of the first fifteen presidents would not have been recognized in the street, the same is true for the best scientists, lawyers, and ministers of that era.

The name Postman gives to the period of time which the American mind submitted to the sovereignty of the printing press is the Age of Exposition.

Exposition is a mode of thought, a method of learning, and a means of expression. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with mature discourse were amplified by typography, which has the strongest possible bias toward exposition: a sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.

The Age of Exposition began to pass toward the end of the nineteenth century, and the early signs of its replacement could be recognized, it’s replacement was the Age of Show Business.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessChapter 3: Typographic America (Amusing Ourselves to Death) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.