Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘media’

24 OCTOBER, 2013

E. B. White on the Future of Reading: Timeless Wisdom from 1951

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“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy.”

“A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan memorably marveled in the 11th episode of Cosmos. But in our day and age where we can no longer be sure what a book even is and the future of the book swells with uncertainty, what has become of that singular magic? Count on E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, heartfelt dog-lover, celebrator of New York, tireless champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — to sweep us into his time machine of timeless insight and take us straight to the heart of the issue. The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library) — which also gave us White’s rare illustrated manuscripts of his children’s classic — includes a short essay titled “The Future of Reading,” which White penned in 1951 and which touches on so much of what we grapple with today, half a century and a digital revolution later. It was originally published in the New Yorker and was eventually included in the 1954 collection of White’s essays, The Second Tree from the Corner.

White writes:

In schools and colleges, in these audio-visual days, doubt has been raised as to the future of reading — whether the printed word is on its last legs. One college president has remarked that in fifty years “only five per cent of the people will be reading.” For this, of course, one must be prepared. But how prepare? To us it would seem that even if only one person out of a hundred and fifty million should continue as a reader, he would be the one worth saving, the nucleus around which to found a university. We think this not impossible person, this Last Reader, might very well stand in the same relation to the community as the queen bee to the colony of bees, and that the others would quite properly dedicate themselves wholly to his welfare, serving special food and building special accommodations. From his nuptial, or intellectual, flight would come the new race of men, linked perfectly with the long past by the unbroken chain of the intellect, to carry on the community. But it is more likely that our modern hive of bees, substituting a coaxial cable for spinal fluid, will try to perpetuate the rave through audio-visual devices, which ask no discipline of the mind and which are already giving the room the languor of an opium parlor.

How reminiscent this is of Virginia Woolf’s 1926 meditation on the moving image, in which she pondered the audiovisual mesmerism of cinema: “The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.” White sees reading as the antidote to this mental resignation, likening the mutuality of its ecstasy to that of sex — something he knows a thing or two about:

Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy. As in the sexual experience, there are never more than two persons present in the act of reading — the writer, who is the impregnator, and the reader, who is the respondent. This gives the experience of reading a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication.

He concludes by urging for the conservation of reading, both in education and in culture at large:

It would be just as well, we think, if educators clung to this great phenomenon and did not get sidetracked, for although books and reading may at times have played too large a part in the educational process, that is not what is happening today. Indeed, there is very little true reading, and not nearly as much writing as one would suppose from the towering piles of pulpwood in the dooryards of our paper mills. Readers and writers are scarce, as are publishers and reporters. The reports we get nowadays are those of men who have not gone to the scene of the accident, which is always farther inside one’s own head than it is convenient to penetrate without galoshes.

The Annotated Charlotte’s Web contains several more of White’s unpublished short essays on reading and writing, which alone render it a treasure. Complement it with White on the role and responsibility of the writer, then revisit this living history of books.

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16 AUGUST, 2013

The Freedom of the Press: George Orwell on the Media’s Toxic Self-Censorship

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“The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.”

In 1937, George Orwell got the idea for his now-classic dystopian allegory exploring the ferocious dictatorship of Soviet Russia in a satirical tale eviscerating Stalin’s regime. In his 1946 essay Why I Write, Orwell remarked that this was his first conscious effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.” But by the time he finished it six years later, in the middle of World War II and shortly before the start of the Cold War, the book’s decidedly anti-Soviet message presented an obvious challenge in politically cautious Britain. The manuscript was rejected by four major houses, including Orwell’s publisher of record, Gollancz, and T. S. Eliot himself at Faber and Faber.

Perhaps even more interesting than the story of the book, however, is the prescient essay titled “The Freedom of the Press,” which Orwell intended as a preface to the book. Included in Penguin’s 2000 edition of Animal Farm (public library) as “Orwell’s Proposed Preface to Animal Farm,” the essay — penned more than seven decades after Mark Twain bewailed that “there are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press” — tackles issues all the more timely today in the midst of global media scandals, vicious censorship, and near-ubiquitous government-level political surveillance.

Orwell begins by excerpting a letter from a publisher who had originally agreed to publish the book but later, under the Ministry of Information’s admonition, recanted:

I mentioned the reaction I had had from an important official in the Ministry of Information with regard to Animal Farm. I must confess that this expression of opinion has given me seriously to think … I can see now that it might be regarded as something which it was highly ill-advised to publish at the present time. If the fable were addressed generally to dictators and dictatorships at large then publication would be all right, but the fable does follow, as I see now, so completely the progress of the Russian Soviets and their two dictators, that it can apply only to Russia, to the exclusion of the other dictatorships. Another thing: it would be less offensive if the predominant caste in the fable were not pigs. I think the choice of pigs as the ruling caste will no doubt give offense to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are.

Noting the general menace of such governmental meddling in the private sector of publishing and the resulting censorship, Orwell bemoans the broader peril at play:

The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face. … The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary.

(Exactly thirty years later, E. B. White would come to redirect this critique at commercial rather than governmental pressures.)

The picture he paints of the press and its relationship with dissent and public opinion is ominously similar to what Galileo faced with the Catholic church nearly half a millennium earlier:

Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines — being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that “it wouldn’t do” to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Orwell critiques the groupthink of the intelligentsia and the odd flip-flopping of moral absolutism and moral relativism they employ when confronted with the question of whether Animal Farm should be published:

The reaction towards it of most English intellectuals will be quite simple: “It oughtn’t to have been published.” Naturally, those reviewers who understand the art of denigration will not attack it on political grounds but on literary ones. They will say that it is a dull, silly book and a disgraceful waste of paper. This may well be true, but it is obviously not the whole of the story. One does not say that a book “ought not to have been published” merely because it is a bad book. After all, acres of rubbish are printed daily and no one bothers. The English intelligentsia, or most of them, will object to this book because it traduces their Leader and (as they see it) does harm to the cause of progress. If it did the opposite they would have nothing to say against it, even if its literary faults were ten times as glaring as they are.

At the heart of the question is an ethical dilemma manifest all the more viscerally today, when opinions can be — and are, prolifically — expressed on more platforms than Orwell could have possibly imagined:

The issue involved here is quite a simple one: Is every opinion, however unpopular — however foolish, even — entitled to a hearing? Put it in that form and nearly any English intellectual will feel that he ought to say “Yes.” But give it a concrete shape, and ask, “How about an attack on Stalin? Is that entitled to a hearing?” and the answer more often than not will be “No.” In that case the current orthodoxy happens to be challenged, and so the principle of free speech lapses. If one loves democracy, the argument runs, one must crush its enemies by no matter what means. And who are its enemies? It always appears that they are not only those who attack it openly and consciously, but those who ‘objectively’ endanger it by spreading mistaken doctrines. In other words, defending democracy involves destroying all independence of thought. These people don’t see that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.

But his most prescient point is his concluding one:

To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.

On August 17, 1945, Animal Farm was at last published. It went on to sell millions of copies and has been translated into more than seventy languages.

Complement Orwell’s essay with E. B. White on the free press, cultural icons on censorship and Rudyard Kipling’s satirical poem poking fun at the press.

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18 JULY, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Modern Media: Hunter S. Thompson on Journalism, Politics, and the Subjective

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“There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

An iconoclastic hero of the written word, Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005) endures as the godfather of “gonzo journalism” — that once-radical, now-ubiquitous style of New Journalism that does away with claims of capital-O objectivity and instead inserts the author into the story as an active first-person narrator. Thompson, in fact, was characteristically unafraid of vocalizing his opinions as a keen observer of and lively, if not hedonistic, participant in culture. But his opinions of journalism in particular he held and proselytized with especial zest — what it is and what it ought to be, what pretensions it could use to divest and what moral obligations it should at all costs uphold. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (public library), the fourth volume of his Gonzo Papers originally published in 1994, Thompson admonishes:

There are a lot of ways to practice the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people — who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled, because they are wrong. This is a dangerous notion, and very few professional journalists will endorse it — calling it “vengeful” and “primitive” and “perverse” regardless of how often they might do the same thing themselves. “That kind of stuff is opinion,” they say, “and the reader is cheated if it’s not labelled as opinion.” Well, maybe so. Maybe Tom Paine cheated his readers and Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends. And maybe H. L. Mencken should have been locked up for trying to pass off his opinions on gullible readers and normal “objective journalism.” Mencken understood that politics — as used in journalism — was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case, using what politely might be called “advocacy journalism,” I’ve used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.

Page from 'Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson.' Click image for details.

But it took Thompson decades to develop his stance, the germ of which can even be felt a 1958 letter to Jerome H. Walker — long before the term “gonzo” was even coined in reference to a 1970 article of Thompson’s — found in the anthology The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume I (public library). In the letter, he addresses the subject more obliquely but with the same unequivocal intimation:

Sacrificing good men to journalism is like sending William Faulkner to work for TIME magazine.

In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (public library), published in 1973, he returns to the subject:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Two thumbs and four fingers holding a peyote button form the 'Gonzo fist,' which originated in Hunter S. Thompson's 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and went on to become an iconic symbol of Thompson and gonzo journalism as a whole.

In a 1997 interview for The Atlantic, Thompson reiterates his conviction, but adds a necessary distinction:

If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.

Flat-out lying, in fact, is something Thompson attributes to politicians whose profession he likens to a deadly addiction. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, the very title of which speaks to the analogy, he writes:

Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal — like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics — especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn. They are addicts.

Later, he resurrects the junkie analogy in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and ties it back to journalism:

Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol… but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time span has the same effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits. When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road-running, its only a matter of time before he gets smashed — and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.

Complement with this fantastic animation of Thompson on the burden of the living and his graphic biography, which was among the best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction of 2012.

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