In the Beginning Was the Word: The Book, That Fusty Old Technology, Seems Rigid and Passe as We Daily Consume a Diet of Information Bytes and Digital Images. the Fault, Dear Reader, Lies Not in Our Books but in Ourselves

By Rosen, Christine | The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Book, That Fusty Old Technology, Seems Rigid and Passe as We Daily Consume a Diet of Information Bytes and Digital Images. the Fault, Dear Reader, Lies Not in Our Books but in Ourselves


Rosen, Christine, The Wilson Quarterly


IN AUGUST, THE COMPANY THAT OWNS READER'S Digest filed for bankruptcy protection. The magazine, first cobbled together with scissors and paste in a Greenwich Village basement in 1922 by De Witt Wallace and his wife, Lila, was a novel experiment in abridgement--in 62 pages, it offered Americans condensed versions of current articles from other periodicals. The formula proved wildly successful, and by midcentury Reader's Digest was a publishing empire, with millions of subscribers and ventures including Reader's Digest Condensed Books, which sold abridged versions of best-selling works by authors such as Pearl Buck and James Michener. Reader's Digest both identified and shaped a peculiarly American approach to reading, one that emphasized convenience, entertainment, and the appearance of breadth. An early issue noted that it was "not a magazine in the usual sense, but rather a co-operative means of rendering a time-saving device."

The fate of Reader's Digest would have been of interest to the late historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin. In his renowned 1962 book The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Boorstin used Reader's Digest as an example of what was wrong with a culture that had learned to prefer image to reality, the copy to the original, the part to the whole. Publications such as the Digest, produced on the principle that any essay can be boiled down to its essence, encourage readers to see articles as little more than "a whiff of literary ectoplasm exuding from print," he argued, and an author's style as littered with unnecessary "literary embellishments" that waste a reader's time.

Today, of course, abridgement and abbreviation are the norm, and our impatience for information has trained even those of us who never cracked an issue of Reader's Digest to prefer 60-second news cycles to 62 condensed pages per month. Free "aggregator" Web sites such as The Huffington Post link to hundreds of articles from other publications every day, and services such as DailyLit deliver snippets of novels directly to our e-mail in-boxes every morning.

Our willingness to follow a writer on a sustained journey that may at times be challenging and frustrating is less compelling than our expectation of being conveniently entertained. Over time, this attitude undermines our commitment to the kind of "deep reading" that researcher Maryanne Wolf, in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007), argues is important from an early age, when readers learn to identify with characters and to "expand the boundaries of their lives."

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As Boorstin surveyed the terrain nearly half a century ago, his overarching concern was that an image-saturated culture would so distort people's sense of judgment that they would cease to distinguish between the real and the unreal. He criticized the creation of what he called "pseudo-events" such as politicians' staged photo-ops, and he traced the ways in which our pursuit of illusion transforms our experience of travel, clouds our ability to discern the motivations of advertisers, and encourages us to elevate celebrities to the status of heroes. "This is the appealing contradiction at the heart of our passion for pseudo-events: for made news, synthetic heroes, prefabricated tourist attractions, homogenized interchangeable forms of art and literature (where there are no 'originals,' but only the shadows we make of other shadows)" Boorstin wrote. "We believe we can fill our experience with new-fangled content."

Boorstin wrote The Image before the digital age, but his book still has a great deal to teach us about the likely future of the printed word. Some of the effects of the Internet appear to undermine Boorstin's occasionally gloomy predictions. For example, an increasing number of us, instead of being passive viewers of images, are active participants in a new culture of online writing and opinion mongering. …

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