On Print and Power

There’s an email making the rounds (I received it several months ago) entitled “Blacks Don’t Read”. Being Black, I read it. The general message of the email is simple and thought-provoking: that one of the reasons that African-Americans are still second-class citizens in their country is that they don’t read.

The email isn’t talking about illiteracy — the condition of being unable to read, or of having never learned to do so. It’s talking about choosing not to read when one could choose to do so. And it’s arguing that the consequences of making such a choice are, fundamentally, political.

I think it has a point.

A couple of years ago, I sat down to watch a special episode of A&E’s Biography on the 100 most influential people of the millennium: politicians, inventors, writers, artists, composers, religious leaders, soldiers. One by one the people I considered likely to be at the top of the list were eliminated, until at last I was stumped: who would be named the most influential person of the last thousand years? The answer: Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press.

Now this intrigued me, especially as I embarked upon a tertiary-level teaching career in which I was regularly astonished at the fact that so many of my students, like the African-Americans of the email, don’t read. It’s not that they can’t read; it’s that they choose not to. They see no use for reading. It’s boring, they say. It’s hard.

Now some would ask the question: what’s wrong with that? In our culture, we communicate primarily by oral means, and place value on what people say, and on what we hear, rather than what we find out through print. As a result, we don’t raise our children to place value on reading or writing.

Fair enough. But there’s just one problem. In 2000, a bunch of thinkers in the most powerful country in the world picked the obscure inventor of the printing press to name the most influential person of the millennium. That suggests to me that it’s not a question of culture. It’s a question of power.

Think about it. The man who took a mechanical press designed to squeeze the oil out of olives, created movable type, and used that contraption to issue the first printed Bible was considered to be more influential than Gandhi, Hitler, or Columbus; than Newton, Einstein, or Freud; than Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or Alexander Graham Bell; than Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, than Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo or the Wright brothers, than Bill Gates or whatever genius invented the Internet.

Why? Because one of the most basic foundations of power in the world comes from knowing information and controlling it.

Before Gutenberg’s printing press, ideas were disseminated by word of mouth. The most important of them were preserved in writing. Laws were written, the Bible was written, and the names of people who had to pay taxes were written. But in a world without print, what was written was an arcane collection of information that only a limited number of people could see for themselves.

The printing press revolutionized the world by allowing ideas that were written to be reproduced so that more people could see them. In so doing, it also helped create a world which could be democratic, egalitarian and independent, because individuals had access to the information that empowered them.

In a world without print, the power that comes from knowing information and controlling it is concentrated in the hands of the very few. In a world without print, not many people read; even fewer write. In a world without print, most people rely upon a handful of educated people to keep them informed. The rest of society is at their mercy.

And to all intents and purposes, the Bahamas is a world without print.

Now don’t get me wrong. We are not living in the Middle Ages, in a pre-Renaissance society where the masses of people can’t read. No; we are living in the modern Bahamas, in a postcolonial society where reading is considered old-fashioned, European, unimportant.

In other words, we live in a society that chooses to inhabit a world without print. Publishers of Bahamian work are few and far between; Bahamian writers are the most obscure of all artists in the country; and, a full generation after Independence, there is no national library, no public collection of writing by and about our people that we can use to raise our children on, to give them an identity, a touchstone of print in a world where print is power. We live in a society where money is spent lavishly on street festivals and fireworks for rallies, but frugally on books and artists and libraries. We live in a society where opinion is formed in churches, at political gatherings, and on radio talk shows. Oh, we have newspapers, for sure; but they tend to be compendia of other people’s words, and hard, analytical reporting is difficult to come by. We live in a world in which the printed matter we get is produced by other people, and not by ourselves.

And so we live in a society that has chosen to relinquish the power that comes from print. In this our society is much like the pre-Gutenberg world. Too many of us believe things and think things that other people have told us, and not things that we have proven for ourselves to be valid. When one reads a book, one has time to reflect, to find other books, to check facts, to make up one’s own mind; the exchange is simply between the reader and the book. But when one listens to a speech or a talk show or a sermon, or watches news on TV, the ideas fly past so quickly that one cannot question them, and one is swept up in the emotion of the moment, and has far less control, eventually, over what one believes.

By rejecting any real kind of control over the products of print, we Bahamians have created a society that depends far too heavily for its information, its “truths”, on a handful of powerful people. Very few of those powerful people are Bahamian. For by rejecting control over the products of print, we Bahamians have chosen not to produce much information of our own.

Oh, we’ll consume it, all right, if it’s marketed to us, and especially if it comes from abroad. Just look at how many of us flock to see Hollywood movies, spout what we have learned from CNN or Fox or NBC Nightly News, inhabit a world shaped by the North American media giant. But we don’t produce our own information. The production and dissemination of ideas is not a “Bahamian” thing. We are an oral society, and everything we have to say is encompassed in Junkanoo.

So where does that place us on the scale of power and influence in the global world? If we read and produce and disseminate no information of our own, where does that leave us?

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