Postman discusses the growth of printed book distribution in the 17th century, and specifically its importance to early American colonial culture. “No literary aristocracy emerged in Colonial America,” says Postman. He notes that literacy rates varied relatively little between the poor and the rich, and even between men and women, which was particularly unusual in that moment in history. Postman talks about the consequences of such a literate culture and notes that a particularly telling example of Colonial America’s literacy is the distribution of Thomas Paine’s tract Common Sense.
Postman’s description of 17th century colonial America is quite nostalgic and idealistic—he renders this period as egalitarian and highly literate. The reader should note that Postman is being strategically selective about his history, deliberately neglecting to discuss the significant percentage of the American population (like slaves and disenfranchised Native Americans) who were not predominantly literate.
Common Sense sold over 100,000 copies in the space of just a few months, and the total copies sold approached 3 million. In 1985, at the time of Postman’s writing, a book would have to sell 24 million copies to be said to have done comparably well. Postman derisively notes, “the only communication event that could produce such collective attention in today's America is the Superbowl.”
Postman begins to contrast his particular vision of the super-literate colonial past with our present day. The implicit suggestion here is that our love of football and advertising has replaced our love of reason, language, and learning. Postman uses Common Sense’s past popularity as a symbol of the decline of print culture, but its title is also an apt representation of what else Postman feels we have lost in a TV culture: our common sense.
“As America moved into the nineteenth century,” Postman continues, “it did so as a fully print-based culture in all of its regions.” Literature, newspapers, and pamphlets were ubiquitous. Intellectual, popular, working-class, aristocratic—all spheres of culture revolved around print media in their own way. “When Charles Dickens visited America in 1842, his reception equaled the adulation we offer today to television stars, quarter- backs, and Michael Jackson.”
Postman continues this strategy, suggesting that as our tastes have changed, so have our heroes. The Charles Dickenses of the world have been replaced by the Michael Jacksons—and Postman, of course, assumes that we will judge Jackson as inferior. The implied question here is: could Charles Dickens have existed in the 20th century the way he did in the 19th?
Postman notes that even lectures—spoken words—took on the quality of print. Lectures and debates didn’t sound like idle conversation—they sounded like writing. Spoken sentences were longer, more complex, and more rigorously logical—and listeners, whose minds were used to this kind of print-based language, were able to digest and follow this kind of spoken print.
New forms of media don’t merely affect what kinds of people become popular heroes, but also how individuals think and process. Postman argues that our very speech patterns were different when we were a print culture. We were not only better readers and writers—we were better thinkers.
Postman furthers his argument: The reason the content of culture was so sophisticated at that time is that printed information had a kind of monopoly. If you wanted to exchange ideas, you did so in a pamphlet, a debate forum, or a lecture—all places where the form of printed language lent itself to a more sophisticated and elegant content. Postman says it is important to continue to investigate how the printing press shaped colonial American epistemology, in order to address the problem of the decline (according to Postman) of rational conversation in 20th century America.
Postman emphasizes that we must first understand the past if we are to understand the present. This is a historical argument above all else: in the tradition of McLuhan, Postman believes that a history of media forms is also a history of humanity, culture, and even methods of thinking..