“Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.” – Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death)
Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, was written in 1985. To put that in perspective, it was written before the majority of people owned cell phones, let alone smartphones; it was written before the Internet hit mass adoption and well before the advent of social media; it was written at a time when people watched VHS tapes not DVDs or BlueRay discs. Postman was very unhappy with what he saw as cultural deterioration as a result of image-based entertainment taking precedence over reading books and writing letters.
It’s safe to assume that if he was still alive, Postman would not approve of Facebook. However, if Neil Postman was truly worried about the decline of Western Civilization because of lack of reading, perhaps he should have made a movie. After all, who’s he trying to convince? If people aren’t reading, writing a book saying that people should read is not helpful. The people reading Postman’s book already agree with him — after all, they’re reading his book.
I like a lot of what Postman has to say but I think the discussion should be focused more on the cultural implications of the messages people consume rather than the medium by which they consume them. But that is a post for another time.
The reality is that people will always read what they want to read and they won’t read what they don’t want to read – it’s that simple. Facebook is the new Reader’s Digest. Consider how most of engage with our Facebook feed; we enjoy seeing pictures, reading little snippets that make us laugh, and finding practical advice for everyday life. We want to be entertained and also informed and we want it to be in bite-size chunks rather than being hit with a wall of text. All of this is true of the format of Reader’s Digest. I remember many a rainy Sunday afternoon browsing through Reader’s Digest: reading thrilling tales, chuckling at “humor in uniform,” and sharing the funny parts with my siblings. Those who want to read full-length books will continue to do so just like they always have while those who want short pieces of information will browse Facebook or pick up an old copy of Reader’s Digest
Technology may be changing the way we read in terms of what mediums we use, but some things never change. According to the wisdom of King Solomon, there is nothing new under the sun. We also have to keep in mind his other famous saying, immortalized by ‘The Birds’, “there is a time for every purpose under heaven.” With greater options for how we consume media and information, it becomes more important, for parents especially, to discern which medium is best for which information. There is a time for Facebook, a time for books, a time for video, and a time to sit and just talk to each other. It is the role of the parent to guide the next generation in making good choices.
Part three of a four part series on reading.
Part 1 – Books and Academic Achievement
Part 2 – Why We Need to Read Together: The Magic of Reading Aloud
Part 3 – Facebook: The New Reader’s Digest
Part 4 – Fiction and Training the Imagination