Reading and Democracy

Essay in response to the report on the decline of reading, nationally, and comments upon it, as in "The Risk of Reading" (recently in the New York Times)


Peter Bearse, Ph.D. (

The battle between print and non-print media has been going on for decades. Advocates for the electronic media say that print is a "linear" medium that disables us from taking a "holistic" view appropriate to the "new age." Yet this author, an old printoholic holdover from the Gutenberg era, wonders who is the more disabled. It is easier to diagnose "patterns in the sand" when the grains are words on a page than when they are pixels on a screen. One wonders how someone can even see, let alone understand, a pattern of visual images if one cannot identify and analyse the underlying elements. It is easy to use the word "holistic" without being able to recognize what the whole represents. Yet, let’s not get caught up in word games. From the standpoint of people’s role in politics, we may be reflecting two sides of a coin here, not a case of either/or. Combinations of visual images and words can provide a powerful 1-2 punch. They can reinforce each other.

It’s possible for TV to be much more effective than print in calling attention to an issue in ways that excites people’s interest or concern and sparks their involvement with others to deal with the issue. The dean of public opinion research, Daniel Yankelovitch, calls this "consciousness raising." Once someone is engaged with an issue and trying to do something about it, reliance upon print media may come into play. Print media can be more analytic. Meyrowitz writes: "The logical linking of pieces of information into large, complex and connected treatises and theories is a feature of writing and print." So, if "holistic" is equated or at least connected with the ability to perceive (the) "complexity" (of the whole of something), then we can hardly rely on electronic media alone. TV images and multi-media can convey some overall sense of something but sensation is a long way from understanding.

Even the ability of electronic media to "convey more of all overall sense of something" is open to question. Put the power and nuance of the English language into the hands of a great writer and you get both a richer sense and better understanding of the human condition from one book than one can obtain from a month of Sundays of watching TV. This is the gist of the case for print media made by a distinguished author, Mario Vargas Llosa, as he declared "The premature obituary of the book."

"The complex sum of contradictory truths…constitute the very substance of the human condition. In today’s world, this totalizing and living knowledge of a human being may be found only in literature…(which) exists only when it is adopted by others and becomes part of social life – when it becomes, thanks to reading, a shared experience."

Which type of medium is more likely to call upon participatory behaviour or to arouse people to take action? Print advocates say that good print treatments of an issue are more likely to engage someone’s active involvement with an issue because well-written words excite a reader’s imagination and thought processes. Both get engaged as a reader tries to grapple with an issue, even while just reading about it. I hope the print advocates are right. My own experience says that they are. Good writing has me thinking about the topic of the writing as I read. As a result, I have developed the bad habit of marking and jotting on the pages of virtually everything that I read unless a quick scan indicates that it is hardly worth reading. Then I just file the item – in the round file.

More specifically, apart from the evidence already highlighted, what do the differing features of print vs. non-print media imply about the likelihood and nature of people’s political involvement? Literature is subversive:

"This is because all good literature is radical…Literature says that…the world is badly made and that those who pretend to the contrary, the powerful and the lucky, are lying…"

To the contrary, the offerings of non-print media are generally opposite in quality; that is, they are not subversive. They do not promote, as good reading does, "the critical mind" or a "critical and non-conformist attitude towards life."

Remember irony and paradox? Well, these can be found in abundance in literature. But what’s most ironic in this contrast of media is that both TV and literature rely greatly upon fantasy. Many media critics take TV to task for programming far too much fantasy. But the main point of impact – upon people’s willingness to get involved with others in the real (non-fantasy) world – this seems to have been missed by most. Even Vargas seems to have missed it, with a snide, elitist reference to "illiterate people who have been made into idiots by television’s soap operas."

Both types of media rely substantially on fantasy, but one type promotes active engagement and the other does not. Why? Because one is an active medium and the other is passive. In order to read a book, one must make a conscious decision to acquire it, open it up and read it. Then, if it’s a good book, it is more likely to foster an actively open mind and critical attitude towards what’s happening in the world. It may be literature that helps you "to understand the impotent feeling of the isolated individual." By contrast, watching TV is a very easy, low-cost, no-brainer. Just press a button or flip a switch to find yourself transported into other worlds. So fantasy generation is not the issue.

Unfortunately, for the most part, these "other worlds" are those which value "conformism and the universal submission of humankind to power." Sure, it often seems otherwise; but the brand of individualism most featured is that characterized by differences in personal appearance that can be gotten off the rack or out of a jar or exhibited in terms of personal behavior quirks with no socially redeeming value. Such "seems," such appearances veiling the true nature and distribution of power in society, suggest what is at stake in one’s choice of participation or lack of participation in public life. As Bill Kibben, a prominent author and former staff writer for the NEW YORKER said as a 2001 commencement speaker: "We weren’t born to live on the couch with the remote control."

Putnam noted that: "If TV steals time, it also seems to encourage lethargy and passivity." In one medium, fantasy reminds us of idealism, the tragic nature of human life and acts of defiance; in the other, we are entertained and then put gently to sleep. Perhaps this is part of the privilege of being an American. In other cultures, TV may be a technology of liberation. In the old Afghanistan, for example, watching TV was "truly scary," subject to punishment; for the ruling Taliban, a group of Islamic fundamentalists, are (were) watching the watchers.

Yet, the early days of TV were like the early days of the Internet now: Pundits carried on about the wonderful potential of the new medium for reinvigorating American democracy. Then it became "mass media" under the control of major, nationwide networks. Marshall McLuhan, at one time the seminal guru of electronic media, wrote:

"Today, the mass audience…can be used as a creative, participating force. It is, instead, merely given packages of passive entertainment. (And so,) Politics offers yesterday’s answers to today’s questions."

Thus, a retreat from TV and a return to reading are crucial to the future of American democracy.