Saturday, March 30, 2013

Postman on reading (with annotations)

I’m re-reading Neil Postman’s classic jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death, subtitled Print discourse in the age of show business, in which this fantastic writer and philosopher explains why he thinks television, as an entertainment-oriented medium, is unfit for conveying serious thought (like political discourse, for example). In the second chapter he gets into how different cultures’ concepts of truth are influenced by the media that predominates, and through the course of the exploration he makes the following observations on what really is required of a reader:

You are required, first of all, to remain more or less immobile for a fairly long time. [RS: Of which I’m incapable. Thus fidgeting.] If you cannot do this (with this or any other book), our culture may label you as anything from hyperkinetic to undisciplined [i.e. ADHD]; in any case, as suffering from some sort of intellectual deficiency. The printing press makes rather stringent demands on our bodies as well as our minds. Controlling your body is, however, only a minimal requirement. You must also have learned to pay no attention to the shapes of the letters on the page. [Typesetting all mine.] You must see through them, so to speak, so that you can go directly to the meanings of the words they form. If you are preoccupied with the shapes of the letters, you will be an intolerably inefficient reader, likely to be thought stupid. If you have learned how to get to meanings without aesthetic distraction, you are required to assume an attitude of detachment and objectivity. [Here we get into reading comprehension and higher-order thinking skills, some of which high-schoolers are rarely well-versed in.] This includes your bringing to the task what Bertrand Russell called an “immunity to eloquence,” meaning that you are able to distinguish between the sensuous pleasure, or charm, or ingratiating tone (if such there be) of the words, and the logic of their argument. But at the same time, you must be able to tell from the tone of the language what is the author’s attitude toward the subject and toward the reader. You must, in other words, know the difference between a joke and an argument. [Really?] And in judging the quality of an argument, you must be able to do several things at once, including delaying a verdict until the entire argument is finished, holding in mind questions until you have determined where, when or if the text answers them, and bringing to bear on the text all of your relevant experience as a counterargument to what is being proposed. [See also: How to Read a Book.] You must also be able to withhold those parts of your knowledge and experience which, in fact, do not have a bearing on the argument. And inconcrete preparing yourself to do all of this, you must have divested yourself of the belief that words are magical and, above all, have learned to negotiate the world of abstractions, for there are very few phrases and sentences in this book that require you to call forth concrete images. In a print-culture, we are apt to say of people who are not intelligent that we must “draw them pictures” so that they may understand. Intelligence implies that one can dwell comfortably without pictures, in a field of concepts and generalizations.

This kind of capable, engaged reading is what’s going to be expected of elementary-school students under the Common Core standards, methinks – or something quite similar. I sincerely wonder whether I read this way before my mid-teens.


Abby said...

So you still like the book?

Sarah said...

I do. I do indeed.