My friend Wendy Dakson has two posts on her excellent blog Past Christian that draw upon the work of Neil Postman. I have to admit that I had never even heard of Postman until I read the two posts and I am sorry that I didn't read him years ago. I have begun to read Amusing Ourselves to Death which was published nearly thirty years ago. In it Postman argues that the pervasiveness of television has shaped public discourse in this country and threatens to reduce almost everything to entertainment. Although I have for a while realized that the network's morning news shows have more entertaining than enlightening, Postman's assertion still came as a bit of a shock and I am still struggling to see all the ways in which aspects of our culture have been changed by television.
I hope to write more about Postman but for the present I want to write a bit about the written word. I grew up in a house with lots of books. My father, whom I never knew had been a college professor before alcoholism began to kill him. My mother became a librarian. I can not remember learning to read; it seems that I always could. In high school I was offended when my English teacher told me I couldn't do a book report on C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces because I wasn't old enough to understand it. (I might have suggested that he wasn't old enough to understand it either, but that would have landed me in trouble.) By the time I was in high school my mother worked at the library at Amherst College. Because the college students who worked there wanted jobs at the circulation desks where they might have some time free to study the task of reshelving was given to high school students. It was probably while putting books on the shelves that I first came across Till We Have Faces. I know that was how I discovered The Sterile Cuckoo, a book not nearly as good as Lewis's but still one that I enjoyed.
Although I do watch a fair amount of television, probably too much, texts still fascinate me. Even the look of letters on a page or on a computer screen has an almost magical quality for me. In reading Dakson's two posts I recalled how some of my earliest religious experiences were related to texts. As a cradle Episcopalian I was in church most Sundays and at other times as well. I can't recall when or how I began a particular practice after receiving Communion. Sitting in my pew as others received I would open The Book of Common Prayer to a particular collect:
Grant, we beseech thee, merciful God, that thy Church, being gathered together in unity by thy Holy Spirit, may manifest thy power among all peoples, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.I can't now recall much of what were my frequent meditations on that text, but it seems to me to have been the beginning of a practice which continues to this day. A prayer, a hymn, a passage from the Scriptures are all there for me as words upon a page, words that I not only heard or said or sang during worship but words to which I can return over and over again, discovering in them new meaning. new power.
One final and curmudgeonly reflection on words. I borrowed a copy of Postman's book from our local library. There are perhaps not as many underlined and circled words as in other library books that I have borrowed, buy why did someone have to put a circle around every appearance of conversation in one paragraph? And, more importantly, where did that person get the idea that he or she had the right to deface someone else's property in that way?
The librarian's son has spoken.