“Typographic America”: Chapter 3 of Amusing Ourselves to Death

This is the third installment of a dialogue I’m having with Neil Postman and his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. I’d love for you to join me; consider this your formal invitation. Here is the first part, which is a general introduction to this work. This is the summation and thoughts on the first chapter. And here is the working through of the second chapter. I’d love for you keep coming back as journey into this modern classic.

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There was a revolution brewing in the early years of the sixteenth century. It wasn’t a violent uprising seeking the head(s) of tyrants, although they were certainly happening. It wasn’t an international conflict, pitting one country against another, although, again, they were certainly on the horizon. Rather, and perhaps underneath the aforementioned scenarios, another shift was taking place:

Beginning in the sixteenth century, a great epistemological shift had taken place in which knowledge of every kind was transferred to, and made manifest through, the printed page. (Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, 33.)

Looking at early colonial American history, the nature of books in society becomes evident: there was an equal amount of reliance upon the written word as there was in its ubiquity. This was especially true of our New England forebears.

Whatever else may be said of those immigrants who came to settle in New England, it is a paramount fact that they and their heirs were dedicated and skillful readers whose religious sensibilities, political ideas and social life were embedded in the medium of typography. (p. 31)

Thoughts, axioms, and all other forms of reasoning were distributed through the typographic word. Political reform, religious doctrine, and social program were all given to the masses in the form of books. They were everywhere. And despite the strong Christian influence of the day, the books in print were not solely of Christian persuasion.

…the famous Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640 [is] generally regarded as America’s first best seller. But it is not to be assumed that these people confined their reading to religious matters. Probate records indicate that 60 percent of the estates in Middlesex County between the years 1654 and 1699 contained books, all but 8 percent 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 equivalent would be ten million books.

In the midst of this shift, it wasn’t long before education took a new direction as well. During this time learning became known as “book-learning.” Moreover, due to the pervasiveness of books, schools began to be just as prevalent. Yet, unlike our current thought of education being the ticket to financial abundance and opportunity, literacy rates and the proliferation of books didn’t give birth to an aristocracy. Rather, all classes were literate and able to articulate reasoned thoughts and beliefs. Postman brings this to our attention with a quote from Jacob Duche in 1772:

‘The poorest labourer upon the shore of the Delaware thinks himself entitled to deliver his sentiment in matters of religion or politics with as much freedom as the gentleman or scholar…Such is the prevailing taste for books of every kind that almost every man is a reader.’

In matters of sheer volume alone, the quantity of books and other typographic material distributed is astounding. Furthering the above statistic in New England along with the literacy of the population despite class designation, we find that Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sold more than 100,000 copies between January 10, 1776 (its date of publication) and March of the same year. In the time of Postman’s writing – 1985 – it would take a book selling 8,000,000 copies in two months to be on the same level. Insane.

The only competition books had to face during these early years was its cousins newspapers and pamphlets. Bringing the printing press to America resulted in a proliferation of newspapers and pamphlets as printing presses popped up across the landscape. So much so that in 1786 Benjamin Franklin quipped “that Americans were so busy reading newspapers and pamphlets that they scarcely had time for books.” (p. 37) Their ease of dissemination and cost allowed every person to be informed regarding the happenings of their locality. Circulation did not require much effort allowing both farmer and city-dweller to equally informed.

Thus, by the time the 19th century began to be ushered in, America was solidified as a print-based culture. Libraries could be found in all regions of the States; not just general libraries, but “mechanics’ and apprentices'”(working class) ones as well. Congress had lowered the postal rates in 1851, which allowed for “the penny newspaper, the periodical, the Sunday school tract, and the cheaply bound book [to be] abundantly available.” (p. 38) Authors of now classics were revered and held in awe due to their continuous thought and story telling. For example,

When Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarterbacks, and Michael Jackson. (p. 39)

Dickens himself wrote of how his time in America could not be rivaled by emperors and other royalty. So splendid and overwhelmingly lavish was his reception all because of his writing prowess. Although she never received the same welcome, American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin “sold 305,000 copies in its first year, the equivalent of four million in today’s [1985] America.” (p. 39)

Astounding.

The influence of the printed word could not be held within books, newspapers, pamphlets and the like. Concurrent with the printing press’ power was the attraction and authority of the lecture hall. Similar to the printed word’s transcendence beyond class, lecture halls opened their doors and speeches to all. As Alfred Bunn, an Englishman visiting America in 1853, reported “practically every village had its lecture hall…It is a matter of wonderment…to witness the youthful workmen, the overtired artisan, the worn-out factory girl…rushing after the toil of the day is over, into the hot atmosphere of a crowded lecture room.” (p. 40) Audiences were captivated by a smattering of the day’s authors, intellectuals, and humorists – who were all writers in and of themselves.

It isn’t that these lecture halls employed something of a competing form with the printed word. Rather, their orality was resolutely formed by the printed word. This wasn’t just the case with lectures and other forms of speaking. It was true of all of society due to the monopoly of the printed word.

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. The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere. (p. 41 emphasis mine)

For the imagination and practice of the everyday person in this time period, the printed word was not just a medium, it was, in Postman’s words, a metaphor. It didn’t supply information; it constituted the manner of engaging the world through a given epistemology. To say that it simply influenced the form of public discourse wouldn’t be saying much.

How does typography act as a metaphor? What is the inherent epistemology the printed word hands the world? The next chapter, “The Typographic Mind” dives head first into these explanations. Come back as Postman continues to pave a way towards how we presently are “amusing ourselves to death.”

Are the above stories and stats surprising to you? Why or why not?

What can you infer about typography’s metaphor and epistemology?

In your own life or the culture of your community, does the power of the written word still stand?

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