Whether you’re a historian with multiple PHDs or you hated history in school, everyone can agree on certain moments in history as being pivotal, revolutionary even. The dropping of the first nuclear bomb. The invention of flight. The creation of the internet. The impacts of these events expand so far that many could and have in fact dedicated their lives to studying them. Now while simplifying the creation of nuclear weapons, flight, and the internet into single moments is only a romantic hyperbole with literary purposes these events did, in fact, change the world. However, there is one turning point that rarely goes discussed. In fact, these this event has shaped the world we lived in for centuries. The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440. Although revered by historians as incredibly influential(even as the most influential man of his millennium) his achievements are rarely discussed outside a few academic circles. However, his invention of the printing press brought about the end of millenniums of oral tradition and culture that were suddenly able to be preserved in text more easily. It ushered in massive advancements in science, economics, politics, religion, and history as ideas were able to be recorded and shared more easily than ever before. The printing press revolutionized the world and allowed for the mass transformation of information unlike anything else previously seen.
However as impressive as Gutenberg's influence is it may be on its last legs as the world enters a new and dangerous era, that of images. With the invention and rapid spread of the internet and mass media technology such as movies and television over the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, images are more prevalent than ever. In fact, new studies estimate that your average individual can see up to 5,000 images a day, largely due to social media. Until 2016 book sales had been declining for years. Communication has even turned towards images as things such as Snapchat, Vine and Emoji replace conventional text-based platforms for communication and social networking. Now this phenomenon is not entirely harmful. Increased access to images has allowed for easier cataloging of memories of thousands of individuals and contributed to successes in medicine and history similar to those of the printing press. However, this transition has been dubbed as a transition to post-literacy where the ability to read or write is no longer necessary for an individual and it’s not seen as entirely benign. This idea has been discussed and played out in many books such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury where novels are banned and images dominate society. Although dystopian in its legal banning and burning of books looking at the digital billboards that cover Time Square and the disgust most students have on their face when it comes to reading books the basis of the post-literacy of Fahrenheit 451 doesn’t seem far off. This trend has been noted by several authors such as Neil Gaiman, Philip Roth, and Chris Hedges.
This decline in literacy and reading threatens society in a number of ways. Some are simple and pragmatic, for example, how are we to understand the laws of our country such as the Constitution when reading ability among voters continuously declines. How long until some bullheaded Congressman or Senator begins to make wild claims about what Article II Section III really means? Now although that seems like an unlikely and impossible situation ask yourself, have you ever read the entire U.S. Constitution and if so, when? Other issues raised by the transition to post-literacy are deeper and more philosophical and arise from the nature of text itself. Unlike viewing an image reading is an interactive process between a reader and a text. If you get up and go to the bathroom the movie won’t stop unless you tell it to however a book moves at your pace. That forces a sort of logical progression into books where a reader may be forced to dwell on a line or paragraph for an extended amount of time before moving on. This, in turn, breeds critical thinking and analyzing skills as readers are forced to look for meaning in the words rather than being present with an image that instantly registers with one’s brain. There are even some potential disturbing correlations between the number of incarcerated individuals in an area and the reading scores of that area in the past. Philip Roth perhaps delivers the best succinct explanation in saying “I do not believe the novel is dying, I said the readership is dying out. That’s a fact, and I’ve been saying it for 15 years. I said the screen will kill the reader, and it has. The movie screen, in the beginning, the television screen and now the coup de grâce, the computer screen.”
Now this isn’t to say that all images or movies are bad. There are some incredible movies out there that are far better than many books. However, I do think that we as a society should be aware of the direction we’re heading and if we stop reading books do it consciously rather than as a subconscious reaction to an increased bombardment of images. So text time you sit down with nothing to do and decide to turn on the TV to “see what’s on”, consider instead picking up a book and giving your brain an old fashioned workout. It’ll thank you for it.