Monday, November 05, 2012

Some Rambling About The Printed Word

I am suspicious of persuasion by visual means, especially those using human beings, as I have mentioned before.  I prefer to be addressed in words, without the facial and vocal cues.  I feel better defended against arguments in that form, less likely to be swayed by emotional cues I am not aware of.  Secretly, I believe that this is true of all of us but hardly anyone wants to admit it, because movies and commercials and TV are more fun, more efficient, and cooler.  I worry that our responses are being hacked by skilled visual persuaders, and that we notice well less than half of it.

Yet I admit it should be the opposite.  There has been an arms race in our evolutionary history between the persuasive and the persuaded, weeding out liars with some effectiveness or the tribe goes over a cliff.  There seems to be more leadership advantage in being thought right than actually being right, at least in terms of passing your own genes on within a surviving tribe. But I can't imagine there isn't some advantage to having leaders that actually are correct more often than not. 

The printed word, on the other hand, is new, and we may not have developed the extra subtleties for lie-detection that we need.  Of course, the liars have only had a few hundred years as well, so the battle may remain even.  Nicholas Wade, who used to be science writer for the NYTimes, suggested that religion may have provided that function, testing people with uncomfortable levels of sacrifice and commitment to prove they belonged.  I suspect that's not more than a little true, but atheists who continue to feel resentment at not being trusted by the religious others might try finding a substitute public cost they can demonstrate. 

Let me also note that I also have a worse history of people fooling me with printed words than live.  Well...that's my first impression, at any rate.  I haven't really thought through a hundred examples of each over the course of my lifetime to measure which is more dangerous to me personally.  But I deal with people who are lying to themselves or to me all day long, and I very seldom get taken in.  Reading...my failure rate may be higher.


There is a cultural value that is now mostly lost but was still strong in my youth, that books, especially hardcover books from respectable publishers, were almost sacred objects.  Destroying a book seemed deeply wrong, whatever its content, while acquiring books was a sort of wealth.  Some people got books just to show off, certainly, but note that this would have not had any power to elevate one's status if there hadn't been a core of people who acceded to that value. 

I note that Protestant ministers retain this value.  They don't seem to weed through their collections well.  Speaking of which, I remember my shock when my librarian wife first spoke of "weeding" through a library's collection.  Throwing books away?  And thee a librarian?  I cannot understand it! It wasn't that long ago.  But even then I was on the regressive end of the culture on that score.  I think old textbooks may be a good indicator.  Not many of those are still all that useful, you know.  Books can be useless enough - or pernicious enough - to be thrown away, and not merely held for a yard sale, to be offered to a good home like a puppy.  Some books should not be encouraged to keep on living.  Strangle 'em.

The roles have switched in our house, BTW.  I have gotten rid of something like 70% of my old books, and I stare meaningfully at my wife's genre fiction, encyclopedia, and obsolete reference books.  She remains well able to shrug this off.

I have little doubt this is left over from days when books were relatively expensive, not everyone had the luxury of formal learning, and publishers saw themselves as bearers of cultural standards, not mere tradespeople. I don't know what dates we would assign to the loss of this value, but an anecdote may be instructive. I recall my Great Aunt Esther, a well-read woman, discussing with my wife and me some new work that had come out and stating rather automatically that Little, Brown, & Co publishing it was some mark in its favor that it was of genuine quality.  She couldn't see how they would have bothered otherwise.  This would have been in the late 70's, and I thought immediately that this approach was no longer true.  Little, Brown, and Co was no guarantee. But I knew exactly what she meant, and believed that it should be true, even if it no longer was.  Had I mentioned it, I imagine she would have acknowledged this was changing.  She was pretty sharp about such things.

A related anecdote: her daughter, my mother's favorite cousin, recently mentioned that Esther had not read Peyton Place even though we had some familiarity with the author, who was local.  It seemed shameful to even consider it.  Yet Esther was rather broad in her reading and a great fan of the theater, so hardly prudish.  Her disapproval seems odd to us now, but when I put my mind back to that time, I can understand it better.

We had public expectations of movies, because there were no rating systems, and anyone could go to any.  Heck, they were even outdoors, for whole neighborhoods to see.  Most children would have been embarrassed to go to something inappropriate, because the adults nearby might stare at you, or openly challenge you or something - but in theory, a bold child could pay up and walk in.  A big deal was made of the fact that the airways were public, and there were only three channels, so TV had to be always mindful of that youngsters might be watching.  All this and more for hardcover books from respectable publishers.  A book itself was valuable, deserving of protection.  Its mere existence was some guarantee of quality and safety for children.  When a book like Peyton Place came out, it was considered a breach of the public trust. We can't imagine that very well anymore.

From this vantage we think we are wise to accuse that era of being unable to deal with such difficult content.  We prefer to think of them as naive, hypocritical.  But racier material was present then, in detective fiction, on the stage, in night clubs, and before that in vaudeville.  We did attempt to pretend we were better than we were, certainly, but let's not overstate that.  The context in which such material appeared mattered greatly.  To be out on display down at Goodman's Bookstore, or appearing on the NY Times Bestseller list, or to be discussed in literary circles, was a statement that this was now mainstream, public, acceptable.  That, not the content that was already available in pulp, was most of the shock.  Such things happen, of course.  But we don't bring them up at the table.


Back to the Protestant ministers.  The phrase book-burning carried more weight then. Moderns who didn't share that old book-preciousness value can only understand the disapproval indirectly.  People didn't destroy books, as I noted.  They were near sacred, in and of themselves.  Protestant ministers shared this value, as I noted.  Therefore, to disapprove of something so strongly as to override that value was a powerful statement.  It was an enormous condemnation.  Hardly anything was so unfit for human consumption as to deserve burning. Like Catholics with divorce, book people tended to feel that book burning was never justified under any circumstances. Therefore, when it happened it always had an air of extremism, of fanaticism about it.

Also, it actually did tend to make the material much less available locally, if some group burned a bunch of volumes of one type or title.  These days, people would just shrug - it would seem a purely symbolic act, having no effect on people's ability to read the content.  Heck, we'll just download it to the Kindle after lunch.


Last Ramble:  On being fooled by text.  Shortly after college I went through a phase of reading James Michener.  I gobbled that up.  I was fascinated by history and geography, but I didn't want to actually work hard at it by taking it in college.  Historical fiction filled the need admirably.  For one such as I who was seeking content but knew little about the history of Israel, or South Africa, of the Chesapeake Bay, or Poland, I read with few defences up.  I believed what Michener told me, essentially.  I could see how he had shaded things this way or that a bit, but I accepted uncritically that the larger events he recorded were pretty much as advertised.  Not until I picked up Texas a few years ago in preparation for visiting my son in Houston did it dawn on me: Michener draws his characters and selects his incidents with great prejudice.  It comes near to agit-prop in places it is so blatant.  Yet I fell for it.

3 comments:

Sam L. said...

Unwarranted trust betrayed; it still hurts.

"They wouldn't/couldn't say it if it weren't true" is now known to be a false statement.

Unknown said...

Old textbooks?! On the contrary, sir.

I tutor college students and I can assure you that for anything but cutting-edge science and technology, old textbooks are far superior to the newer ones.

When I find a student who needs practice in algebra, I advise them to find an algebra textbook in the library from the 1950's or earlier - it will be vastly superior to anything more recent.

Unknown said...

Old textbooks?! On the contrary, sir.

I tutor college students and I can assure you that for anything but cutting-edge science and technology, old textbooks are far superior to the newer ones.

When I find a student who needs practice in algebra, I advise them to find an algebra textbook in the library from the 1950's or earlier - it will be vastly superior to anything more recent.