Every now and then, print journalists commiserate about their craft. Newspaper and magazine circulation has been on a gradual slide for decades, as more and more people turn to the Timbit world of broadcast and online news. A snatch of this, a bite of that — the news in tidy, sugar-coated morsels, and not always reliable.
Most print media have adapted to this new world by turning more and more to the Internet. In many ways, it means newspapers are in a position to offer the best of both worlds — the instant hit and the in-depth followup. The increased options have actually kept readership numbers stable.
In an age of diminishing attention spans, the web is both a curse and a blessing. Its offer of straight-to-cerebrum infotainment has become the norm, but the Internet is merely the medium, not the message. Yes, you can watch snippets of video, listen to audio or just scan headlines. But you can, in the case of online subscriptions, also read an entire newspaper in the traditional format.
One thing is unlikely to change, and that is the undying dominion of the written word.
It’s often said that history began with the appearance of written language. Those who study oral histories may beg to differ, as they ferret out unrecorded stories and traditions passed on through the ages. But even then, their findings are very much preserved in the realm of the written word.
One aspect of the transition from speech to print can actually be traced to a specific point in history. Not long after a young African scholar (later to become St. Augustine), came to Rome in AD 383, he paid a visit to the city’s bishop, Ambrose. According to Alberto Manguel, in “A History of Reading,” Augustine was quite taken by a curious quirk of his host.
“When he read,” said Augustine, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”
It was standard, in times before the universalization of education, for texts to be read aloud, whether in church and schools or at public gatherings. Even in private, the common practice was to at least mouth the words, if not actually voice them. After all, language is originally an oral phenomenon.
But the use of visual symbols to represent language was unquestionably mankind’s greatest invention. Indeed, those who have trouble reading know that modern society is difficult to navigate without it.
As Manguel concludes:
“Observing the reading of Saint Ambrose that afternoon in 384, Augustine could hardly have known what was before him. He thought he was seeing a reader trying to avoid intrusive visitors, sparing his voice for teaching. In fact he was seeing a multitude, a host of silent readers who over the next many centuries would include Luther, would include Calvin … would include us, reading him today.”