Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture

Article excerpt

I. The End of Print Culture

We are currently living in the midst of a massive cultural revolution. For the first time since the development of moveable type in the late fifteenth century, print has lost its primacy in communication. The proliferation of electronic technology has gone far beyond providing new means for the communication, storage, and retrieval of information: the new media have gradually changed not only the way we perceive language and ideas but also the world and ourselves. The shift in the modes of communication has had an extraordinary impact on every aspect of contemporary life, but literature, an imaginative enterprise created entirely from words, has been profoundly affected in ways that we are still in the process of comprehending.

How does one describe this cultural change? A few gross statistics may help to characterize the general environment. According to one recent study, the average American now spends about twenty-four minutes a day reading, not just books, but anything-newspapers, magazines, diet tips, and TV Guide. This small investment of time compares with over four hours daily of television and over three hours of radio. Less than half of U.S. households now read daily newspapers, and many of the newspapers they do follow, such as USA Today, increasingly model their short attention span formats after television. Younger adults (ages 18 to 30) read significantly less than older groups. Children now grow up in a world where reading has been overwhelmed by other options for information and entertainment. According to a 1999 survey, at that time the average American child lived in a household which owned two television sets, three tape recorders, three radios, two videocassette recorders, two compact disk players, one video game player, and a computer. The survey neglected to mention if the home had any books, but it did note that the child spent 5 hours and 48 minutes each day with electronic media versus 44 minutes with print. It should be noted that the time the child spent with print includes that compulsory activity called homework.

Many experts also feel that illiteracy is on the rise in America. According to a 1986 United States Bureau of Census study, 13 percent of Americans over the age of 20 are illiterate. That statistic means that in the United States, which that same year officially measured its literacy rate at 99 percent, somewhere around 19 million adults cannot read with minimal competency. Significantly, subsequent measures of illiteracy have become controversial because experts no longer agree on what constitutes literacy, which has become a divisive ideological issue in education. It was simpler in the bad, old days when the Census Bureau automatically bestowed literacy on anyone who had completed fourth grade. I particularly enjoy that measure because, by sheer coincidence, both of my grandfathers stopped school after fourth grade. My paternal grandfather was educated in Sicily, so his example is not especially relevant, but my maternal grandfather, half-Mexican and half-Native American, learned enough in his four years of New Mexican Indian reservation schooling to become an avid lifelong reader. Today, however, when school-age children spend considerably more time watching television than in the classroom, educational level is no longer an accurate predictor of literacy.

For years many intellectuals and academics have observed these trends with a mixture of disappointment and detachment. While lamenting the sorry state of literacy among the public, they remained confident in the power of print culture among educated Americans. That confidence now seems misplaced. Books, magazines, and newspapers are not disappearing, but their position in the culture has changed significantly over the past few decades, even among the educated. We are now seeing the first generation of young intellectuals who are not willing to immerse themselves in the world of books. …

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