Publishing, Reading, and Inventing Science in the Nineteenth Century

British Museum Reading Room PanoramaJonathan R. Topham’s chapter in Science and Religion prompts a more careful examination of the role of science within literature, as well as the cultural embeddedness of science itself. In several other places, Topham offers a more detailed account of the pivotal roles of author, publisher, and reader of nineteenth-century print media, particularly in his essays “Scientific Publishing and the Reading of Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: A Historiographical Survey and Guide to Sources” (2000) and more recently “Scientific Readers: A View from the Industrial Age” (2004).

The Periodical as Medium of Science

The periodical press was without doubt the primary means of cultural circulation in the nineteenth century, having a greater impact and reaching far larger and more diverse reading audiences than books. Science permeated the content of periodicals in nineteenth-century Britain, appearing not only in dedicated scientific journals, but also in other forms, including fictional representation, glancing asides in political reports, and caricatures and comical allusions. “From the perspective of the readers of periodicals,” write Gowan Dawson and Topham in “Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical” (2004), “science was omnipresent, appearing even in recipes and advice on domestic pets, as well as strongly didactic fiction that was a mainstay of early nineteenth-century children’s magazines.” (See esp. Topham’s “Periodicals and the Making of Reading Audiences for Science in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Youth’s Magazine, 1828-37″ [2004]) And as William H. Brock, in his chapter on “Science,” in J. Donn Vann and R.T. VanArsdel’s Victorian Periodicals and Victorian Society (1994), further notes, during the Victorian age “almost all initial scientific communication took place through…periodicals rather than books.”

The Intimate Relationship between Literature and Science

Furthermore, in nineteenth-century periodicals, magazines, and newspapers, articles on scientific issues were set side by side with fiction, poetry, and literary criticism. “In the popular press,” writes Laura Otis in her Literature and Sciences in the Nineteenth Century: An Anthology (2009), science and literature “commingled and were accessible to all readers. Scientists quoted well-known poets both in their textbooks and in their articles for lay readers, and writers we now identify as primarily ‘creative’ explored the implications of scientific theories.” Both literature and science, observes Gowan Dawson in “Literature and Science under the Microscope” (2006), are now “viewed as similarly constituted practices embedded in particular culturally and historically contingent formations, with neither privileged epistemologically as necessarily objective, rational or true, and earlier conceptions of scientific ‘influence’ have been replaced by an awareness that the interaction between literature and science is very much a reciprocal process—the intellectual ‘traffic’ is ‘two-way.'” By focusing on the complex embodied processes by which readers make sense of printed objects, new insights emerge into the manner in which meaning is both made and contested.  Scientific texts are, in any case, just as amenable to critical analysis as any work of imaginative literature, and their authority-mandated meanings equally likely to be resisted or subverted in the actual reading processes of different audiences. This new approach, according to Dawson, raises “important questions regarding the production of meaning and the transmission of knowledge that have resonated in a variety of different disciplines, and in the study of literature and science most especially.”Like the constructivist approach to the history of science, Topham explains, “the new history of reading has shifted attention from disembodied ideas to the underlying material culture and the localized practices by which it is apprehended.”

The History of Reading

According to Topham, a profound series of changes occurred in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These changes came with epistemological and rhetorical shifts, but most importantly it came with the circumscribing of communities, “from the logic of discovery, theoretically open to all…to a far more restrictive notion of disciplined ‘expertise.'” This was “boundary work,” the active self-fashioning, self-promoting, and restricting of scientific expert from passive public. It was, in short, the predetermining of audience relations to the new sciences.

This predetermining was accomplished, in part, by the popularization of science in nineteenth-century print. It is of considerable significance, Topham observes, “that the same period which witnessed the creation of specialist scientific disciplines, typified by trained cadres of ‘experts’ and increasingly arcane and technical vocabularies, also saw the potential readership for printed accounts of those sciences increase exponentially.” In attempting to understand how nineteenth-century scientists, authors, and publishers managed the new print media, Topham refutes the traditional “diffusionist notion of ‘popularization’ in which scientific ideas are viewed as being communicated in a basically linear process from the (expert) context of discovery and validation to the (lay) context of passive public consumption.”

Perhaps the most profitable approach to understanding nineteenth-century print culture is the discipline of the history of reading, which is derived from literary criticism, cultural history, media studies, and book history. This approach, Topham argues, shows us that however readers encounter texts—books, journal, periodical, newspaper, tract, pamphlet, poster, or even computer screen—it makes a difference to the meaning they derive from them. “Readers approach books with different expectations and interests, levels of skill, and reading conventions, and these substantially alter the sense they make.” The assumption that scientific ideas and practices operate in an unmediated, uni-directional manner from scientist to lay public, as many recent work in the history of science and the history of reading have demonstrated, is, in the final analysis, completely untenable.

The reader is never a passive reader. This point is conveyed nicely in Robert Darnton’s notion of a “communication circuit” of print, found in his essays “What is the History of Books?” and “First Steps Toward a History of Reading” in The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (1990) and, more recently, his “‘What is the History of Books?’ Revisited” in Modern Intellectual History (2007). According to Darnton, books generally pass through roughly the same life cycle:

from the author to the publisher (if the bookseller does not assume that role), the printer, the shipper, the bookseller, and the reader. The reader completes the circuit, because he influences the author both before and after the act of composition. Authors are readers themselves. By reading and associating with other readers and writers, they form notions of genre and style and a general sense of the literary enterprise, which affects their texts…A writer may respond in his writing to criticism of his previous work or anticipate reactions that his text will elicit. He addresses implicit readers and hear from explicit reviewers. So the circuit runs full cycle.

In the same vein, Roger Chartier, in his “Texts, Printings, Readings” (1989), calls for a triangular relationship between texts as conceived by author, as printed by the publisher, and as read (or heard) by the reader. Recognizing this “communication circuit” between author, publisher, and reader, therefore, reveals the multi-directional nature of nineteenth-century print culture. Topham’s aim in these articles and others is to discuss ways in which such an account could be developed regarding science in nineteenth-century Britain.

Production and Reception

The most obvious starting place in understanding audience-relations of scientific writing is its production and reception. James Secord argues that such an approach must begin “from the ground up, looking at the basic material products of cultural life,” obvious in the case of experimental instruments, natural history specimens, three-dimensional models, but also equally true of pamphlets, drawings, periodicals, journals, articles, notebooks, diagrams, paintings, and engravings (see Secord, “Knowledge in Transit” [2004]). Patterns of production are an important indicator of what was read and by whom. And here bibliographers, librarians, and collectors provide data on the output of books on different scientific subjects.

But as Topham points out, looking at book production alone is problematic. Books of much wider significance have been obscured by predispositions toward “great men” and their “great books.” Because of the difficulty in establishing the actual views of those outside the gentlemanly elite, focus has shifted toward bibliometrics. While bibliometric methods are most often found in library and information sciences, bibliometrics have wide application in other areas. Citation analysis of books, periodicals, libraries, institutions, and lectures can be used as determinants and indicators of popular science in nineteenth-century publishing. Trade lists from the London Catalog of Books, for example, provides a classified index to all contemporary books published in Great Britain published from 1816 to 1851. The copyright receipts of books in the Publishers’ Circular, which was a trade journal for the publishing industry first established in 1837, is the single largest printed source of information on books published in Britain in the nineteenth century. With over 70,000 pages of listings, publishers’ advertisements, statistics and editorial matter, it represents an immensely rich and detailed reference and repertoire of sources. These more inclusive sources help avoid what has been called “cultropomorphic distortion,” that is, the overt dependency on a few canonical works as representative of the whole. We must recover, Topham argues, this “vast body of forgotten works.”

Patterns of distribution were equally as important as patterns of production. High prices of books made libraries, reading rooms, book clubs—even pubs, parlors, and fashionable salons—central destinations of nineteenth-century print culture.

The Rise of Periodicals

Such “full publishing profiles,” as Topham calls them, is not only a largely unexplored area, but a dauntingly time-consuming and exhausting exercise. In recent years, however, historians have made a determined effort through the aid of technology, by the development of computerized bibliographical databases. This “electronic harvest,” as Secord termed it in an Essay Review (2005) of the same title, has given much more attention to periodicals than to books. And for good reasons. “Journals,” writes Topham, “played a particularly important role in defining reading audiences,” and even more important were non-specialist reviews, magazines, newspapers, which had much wider circulation than the more specialist periodicals. For example, Susan Elizabeth Darwin, Charles Darwin’s older sister, in the 1830s recommend her brother read the Penny Magazine to gain “a little smattering” of geology. Michael Faraday felt a personal indebtedness to Jane Marcet, author of Conversations on Chemistry (1805), as one of his inspirations to study in the scientific field. Marcet was determined to explain chemistry in a straightforward and clear way even though she herself was not a chemist. In a letter to Swiss physicist Auguste de la Rive, Faraday wrote:

Mrs Marcet was a good friend to me, as she must have been to many of the human race. I entered the shop of a book-seller and book-binder at the age of 13, in the year 1804, remained there eight years, and during the chief part of the time bound books. Now it was in those books, in the hours after work, that I found the beginning of my philosophy. There were two that especially helped me, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica from which I gained my first notions of electricity, and Mrs. Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry which gave me my foundation in that science.

What is more, in comparison with the 1,250 copies of the first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species that were printed and in circulation by the end of 1859, Darwinian ideas soon reached a vastly larger audience through the reviews and other commentaries carried by well over a hundred periodicals, several of which had print runs far in excess of 10,000. Newspapers and magazines, as Secord argues, often functioned as foils for readers’ own developing views: they might read them “not to agree with them, but to think with them.” Periodicals were also explicit forums of debate. Huxley, for instance, published much of his most important work in journalistic form, pictured himself and his adversaries as “dialectic gladiators, fighting in the arena of the Fortnightly [Review], under the eye of an editorial lanista, for the delectation of the public.” As Gawon and Topham put it, “such general periodical played a highly significant role, probably far greater than that of books, in shaping the public understanding of new scientific discoveries, theories, and practices.”

There is, then, the “need to recover the often faint traces of individual reading habits.” And thanks to such technological advances as the Waterloo Directory of English Newspapers and Victorian Society, Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906, Wellesley Index of Victorian Periodicals, Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical (SciPer), Nineteenth Century Serials Edition (NCSE), Reading Experience Database (RED) and others, the staggeringly vast output of nineteenth-century periodicals is increasingly being put under bibliographical control. Indeed, “historians have never been in a better position to identify the actual patterns of reading historical actors, and it is only by reading the evidence of production and distribution…that an accurate picture can be obtained of who read what, and where.”

Reading Practices

This empirical approach to the history of reading is only a beginning. In addition to knowing the “what and where,” we also need to know “how and why readers read what they read.” Parsing authorial intentions and textual strategies of authors have traditionally been the main method of historians. In recent years scientific authors in particular have come under closer scrutiny. There is a “growing awareness that the thinking that scientists do, rather than being purely cerebral, is also a ‘practical activity, intimately bound up with other kinds of doing,'” leading into an interest in the sociological and rhetorical nature of scientific writing. In several places Steven Shapin alerts us to the rhetorical aims of scientific texts and writings about science (see esp. “History of Science and Its Sociological Reconstructions” [1982]; “Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology” [1984]; “A Scholar and A Gentleman: The Problematic Identity of the Scientific Practitioner in Early Modern England” [1991]; The Scientific Revolution [1996]; “Science and the Modern World” [2007]; and “The Image of the Man of Science” [2008]), as does Jan Golinski (see “The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory: Sociological Approaches in the History of Science” [1990] and Making Natural Knowledge: Constructivism and the History of Science [1998]), Peter Dear (see esp. The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument [1991]), Geoffrey Cantor (see “The Rhetoric of Experiment,” in D. Gooding, T. Pinch, and S. Schaffer, The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences [1989]), and others (see also A.E. Benjamin, G.N. Cantor, and J.R.R. Christie, The Figural and the Literal: Problems of Language in the History of Science and Philosophy, 1630-1800 [1987]).

Related to this is what Topham calls the “semiotics” of books as objects of sign and symbol. A book’s physical structure played quite a significant determinant of reading experience. A book’s physical appearance reveals not only its intended audience but its intended meaning, “publishers increasingly sought to exploit different physicals forms for different audiences, often, indeed, producing multiple editions of the same work to suit the pockets and tastes of different readers.” Attention must be given, moreover, to the complex and changing semantics of typography, material paper, format, and binding. Leslie Howsam, for example, argues in  “An Experiment with Science for the Nineteenth-Century Book Trade: The International Series” (2000) that “the bland package of a printed and bound book” conceals a “complex history of networking and power-broking among authors and publishers,” seldom hinting at “decisions to include or omit material” negotiated between publisher and writer. A case in point is the International Scientific Series, “whose ‘familiar red covers’ were described as ‘a guarantee of sound material within.'” But the readily recognizable packaging, according to Howsam, evoked “the illusory but still compelling insurance of textual quality,” and thus exists as a “triumph of nineteenth-century publishers’ marketing that continues to resonate in antiquarian bookshops and rare-book collections today.” Such an “analytical bibliography” of books will thus “recover crucial aspects of historical reading experiences.”

A text’s own self-definition, however, is never enough to tell us a reader’s motivations and experiences in reading. “Readers approach books with different expectation and interest, levels of skill, and reading conventions, and these substantially alter the sense they make.” What a book means thus frequently becomes a matter of contest between parties engaged in a struggle for cultural authority. One must consider the agency of readers in subverting authorial intentions and textual strategies in producing meaning.

But the reader is never a wholly free agent. Indeed, readers are not only greatly affected by the formal and textual strategies of printed objects; they are also obviously constrained by the culture of the communities to which they belonged. These communities of readers are distinguished, furthermore, by differences in reading ability, in norms and conventions that defined legitimates uses, ways to read, instruments and methods of interpretation, and by differences in their expectations and interests. “The historians task,” says Topham, is to chart the “differences in educational provision, by analysing the different conceptions of reading conveyed by such guides to reading as conduct manuals, periodical reviews, and sermons, by examining the different representations of reading in works of art and literature and in more personal sources like letters and autobiographies, and by considering the different spaces in which reading took place.” If reading practices are indeed embodied, then questions about what scientists read, when, and with what effect are just as important as public reading practices.

An example of what this might look like is provided by Topham in “Scientific Readers: A View from the Industrial Age” (2004), in the case of Charles Darwin. Darwin’s reading notebooks—recording books he intended to read or had read—have been transcribed and annotated, as have his marginalia and early theoretical notebooks by a generation of dedicated scholars. Darwin’s reading was a key element of his scientific work. His reading of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) is well known. Less known is how Darwin set about reading books, making notes, where he learned those practices, and how he shared these personal practices of reading with his scientific peers. The recent collection of essays edited by Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick in The Cambridge Companion to Darwin (2009), attempts to fill this gap by examining Darwin’s main scientific ideas and their development; his science in the context of its times; and the influence of Darwinian thought in recent philosophical, social and religious debate. Hodge’s essay in particular, “The Notebook Programmes and Projects of Darwin’s London Years,” provides a sketch of Darwin’s reading habits during his most productive years in London following the Beagle voyage. It was during his time in London where Darwin formulated almost “all the main theories later published in the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s: his theory of the origin of species; his theory of generation or reproduction and heredity; his theory of the origin of the moral sense in man from ancestral animal social instincts; and his interpretation of the expression of the emotions in man and animals.” All this work is collected in a series of small leatherbound notebooks which Hodge carefully dissects.

Topham also insists, following Secord, that reading for Darwin was a bodily activity. For Darwin, “books were not for ostentatious display, but tools for use.” According to Secord, Darwin “split them in half, ripped pages out of pamphlets, and never had anything rebound”; he had “accumulated a personal library of several thousand books, but was very selective and bought only those likely to prove valuable to his own work in specific ways.” Topham also relates a memory recalled by Darwin’s son, Francis Darwin, regarding his father’s procedures of note-making and annotation:

He had one shelf on which were piled up the books he had not yet read, and another to which they were transferred after having been read, and before being catalogued. He would often groan over his unread books, because there were so many which he knew he should never read. Many a book was at once transferred to the other heap, either marked with a cipher at the end, to show that it contained no marked passages, or inscribed, perhaps, “not read,” or “only skimmed.” The books accumulated in the “read” heap until the shelves overflowed, and then, with much lamenting, a day was given up to the cataloguing.

Martin Rudwick has also highlighted the social and spatial situatedness of Darwin’s scientific work during the years he spent in London. In his “Charles Darwin in London: The Integration of Public and Private Science” (1982), Rudwick argues that Darwin’s involvement and participation in the collective enterprise of the Geological Society shaped both his public and private theorizing on transmutation, as well as his scientific practices, which included his note-making. Darwin’s work, in other words, was not a solitary affair; it was “molded by social practices such as  formal discussion in society meetings, private conversation and correspondence, and even practical cooperation in research.” Reading practices—especially scientific ones—are “craft skills,” learned by example and usually part of some pedagogical process.

Punch Magazine 1885 - Bristish Museum Reading RoomThe evidence for reading practices which has received most attention from historians have been, of course, periodical reviews. In the early nineteenth century, periodicals were seen as important sources of advice on reading, informing readers not only about what but also how they should read. What is more, popular and more general periodicals like Wesleyan Methodist Magazine reportedly sold 25,000 copies monthly in 1820—far more than either the Edinburgh or Quarterly reviews—and provided authoritative guidance both on what and how to read. Other scholars have pointed to other sources as well, including conduct manuals, sermons and lectures, as well as personal sources of advice such as conversations and letters, for guidance as reading practices. The main point here is that reading is embedded in oral culture and serves as social intercourse, as social function; and because it is social it has to be practiced in particular ways.

Patterns of Publishing

Readers were largely dependent on the commodity market of the book trade. Indeed, publishers acted as creative agents, responsible for selecting and developing certain forms of scientific publication. Mention has already been made of the rhetorical strategies of the International Scientific Series. Historians of science have traditionally focused on the profound technological advances made in nineteenth-century print, including mechanization of paper manufacturing, national transportation, mass-produced cloth case bindings, and so on. But Topham wants to avoid slipping from a “‘soft’ form of technological determinism to a ‘hard’ form which make changes in print culture…follow ‘inexorably’ from the development of paper-making machines, stereotype moulds, steam presses, or binding cloth.” According to Topham, the development of these technologies were the result of commercial imperatives in the book-trade. These imperatives, moreover, included not only the practices and motivations of publishers, but the concerns of both authors and readers as well.

In a series of books (Judging New Wealth:Popular Publishing and Responses to Commerce in England, 1750-1800 [1992]; The English Novel 1770-1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, 2 Vols.[2000]; and more recently, The Business of Books: Booksellers and the English Book Trade 1450-1850 [2007]), James Raven argues that dramatic changes in publication were chiefly due to fundamental changes in the commercial orientation of the book trade. The roots of these changes, he says, were the commodification of middle-class leisure. The middle-class demanded books, and the book trade in turn developed new genres to exploit the new emerging market, including the novel and the magazine, children’s books and “recreational” books of natural philosophy and natural history, anthologies, and new physical formats such as pocketbooks. “In the book trade of early nineteenth-century Britain,” writes Topham, “publishers were more than ever before innovative entrepreneurs, intent on creating and exploiting new markets with an increasing range of literary products.”


All this leads to questions about the dramatis personae of nineteenth-century scientific books. Who were the scientific writers? It is now well-known that many of those who wrote on science were not scientific practitioners themselves. The range of individuals are considerable, including “hack writers,” “compilers”of miscellanies, “fashionable” authors, “professional” journalists, and the band of reviewers in weeklies and monthlies of the general and religious press. Some scholars have gone to great lengths in identifying where such “authors lived or worked, their dedicatees, their occupations, and their educational institutions, together with indexes of printers and publishers and of the places of publication.” Indeed, Bernard Lightman has claimed that “professional scientists…account for only a small portion of the works of Victorian popularizes of science,” and “may have been more important than the Huxleys and Tyndalls in shaping the understanding of science in the minds of a reading public composed of children, teenagers, women, and nonscientific males.”

But distinguishing scientific practitioner who was also scientific author from nonscientific writer is no easy task. Otis in her Literature and Sciences in the Nineteenth Century, often mentions the close relationship between scientific practitioner and literary writer: “anyone who read the works of successful scientists could see immediately that most good scientists were also imaginative writers…to win the confidence of educated readers, nineteenth-century scientists made frequent references to the fiction and poetry of the day and to that of earlier generations.”

But more than mere credibility, the scientific practitioner who was also scientific author had significant financial incentives in composing popular works. Indeed, authorship had been an increasingly valuable source of income for scientific practitioners, beginning in the eighteenth century and onwards, as the market for books on natural subjects greatly expanded.

As an example, Topham looks at the literary labors of Scottish physicist, mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and writer, David Brewster (1781-1868). For Brewster, the financial incentives of science were endless. He supported himself by writing, editing, tutoring, inventing, serving on scientific societies, occasional prizes, and government pension. “Like many of his contemporaries,” writes Topham, Brewster “particularly benefited from the burgeoning range of early nineteenth-century periodicals, becoming a regular reviewer for the heavy quaterlies and an editor of several of the new scientific magazines.”

There was clearly a living to be made from such work in the early nineteenth century. But this revenue came at a cost. Scientific writers were forced to develop a multifaceted persona in which they were both original and authoritative, exhibiting both genius and expertise. For the “aspiring man of science, learning to write within this genre was the prerequisite of success as a scientific author.” More importantly, as Richard Yeo has argued in his essay, “Science and Intellectual Authority in Mid-nineteenth Century Britain” (1989), with popular works like Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, scientists were provoked in “writing self-conscious works of ‘popular science’ to enforce their claims to authority.” According Topham, it is only by situating scientific authors and their writings within the context of the ever-expanding print culture and the increased status and power of nineteenth-century authors that we can fully appreciate their role in the making of science.


If reading is to become a subject of serious and integrated historical scrutiny, it needs to combine the “external history of reading”—the who, what, where, and when of reading—with the “internal” history of how and why readers read. Alvar Ellegård’s Darwin and the General Reader (1958) relies on the publication of articles on evolution in the British periodical press, and thus is a good example of an entirely “external” reception study. Although Topham criticizes Ellegård as giving “no thought to how such articles were read or responded to by readers,” his chapter on “Science and Religion: A Mid-Victorian Conflict” provides important periodical sources that reveal conflict emerging from discussions of “Higher Criticism” rather than Darwinism; and his earlier work, “The Readership of the Periodical Press in Mid-Victorian Britain” (1957) provides a painstakingly researched directory of nineteenth-century newspapers, weekly reviews, quarterlies, monthlies, journals, and magazines.

To be sure, Ellegård’s attempt to codify public opinion on Darwinism by a statistical analysis of press reaction, classifying responses according to just a handful of possible positions,  obscures the vibrancy of debate on the topic. In the final analysis, an external history of reading can only be partial. Sources for an internal history of reading include the book as a semiotic system, its material form as a printed artifact; individual encounters with works recounted in dairies, marginalia, notes, correspondence, and autobiographies; and a history of education, including studies on how habits of reading were instilled in grammar schools and university students.

The idea that the historian might be able to gain a fuller understanding of the experience of nineteenth-century readers of books and periodicals by combining evidence from production, distribution, and consumption with evidence from relating to textual strategies of authorship, and to contemporary reading practices, has far-reaching consequences for the historian of science. Indeed, as Secord puts it, such a pursuit is “a study of cultural formation in action.”

Now this…Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death

postmanWe live in a world of distractions. A world infiltrated by a cacophony of Internet sites, memes, and social networks; a world of cell phones and smart phones and iphones; an influx of cable channels by the hundreds, flat-screens, DVDs, HDTV and Blue-ray. In other words, a world of instantaneous and constant noise.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, first published in 1985, was a work ahead of its time. It is a twenty-first century book published in the twentieth century. In it Postman argues that television, and media in the larger context, has generated a seismic shift in our epistemology, adversely affecting our public discourse.

The book opens with a Foreword that relates two literary dystopic visions—that of George Orwell, who in his book 1984 warned about a despotic state that would ban information to keep the public powerless, and that of Aldous Huxley, who in Brave New World depicted a population too amused by distraction to realize that they had been made powerless. Postman wants to argue that discourse inspired by television has turned our world into a Huxleyan nightmare. “What Orwell feared,” writes Postman, “were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

Postman divides his book into two parts. Part I is concerned with background and historical analysis. In the first chapter, “The Medium is the Metaphor,” Postman introduces the concept of “media-metaphors.” “Culture is a conversation, or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes.” And conversation, or discourse, is necessarily limited by the form of the medium it employs. That is, the limitations of a particularly medium affects what can be realistically communicated. Postman suggests, for instance, that the “smoke signals” of Native Americans conveyed only a limited amount of information. You can’t have an abstract, philosophical discussion using smoke signals. Thus form excludes content.

Postman gives additional examples of how the form of discourse limits content, but perhaps most crucial for his argument is what he calls “the news of the day.” Postman observes that the “news of the day” could not exist without the proper media to give it expression. Even though atrocities have always occurred in human history, for example, they were not a facet of a person’s everyday life until the telegraph (and subsequent technologies) made it possible for them to be communicated at a faster rate. This idea of instantaneous, decontextualized information will be central to later chapters.

Postman wants to show how today’s denizens are “undergoing a vast and trembling shift from the magic of writing to the magic of electronics.” By proposing our media-metaphors as powerful forces that influence our means of thought, he means to say that form subjugates content. “Our languages are our media. Our media are our metaphors. Our metaphors create the content of our culture.” In the reminder of the book Postman intends to reveal the effect of the media-metaphor of television on our minds.

In Chapter Two, Postman examines how media determines the way in which we define truth. Although Postman rejects relativism, he does believe a civilization will identify truth largely based on its forms of communication. An oral culture, for example, will likely put great stock in a man who remembers proverbs, since truth is passed on through such stories, whereas a culture of the written word will find oral proverbs only quaint, and the permanence of written precedent far more important. What concerns Postman about the television is not that it provides non-stop entertainment; rather, it has limited our discourse to where all of our serious forms of discussion have turned into entertainment.

“Truth,” writes Postman, “does not, and never has, come unadorned.” It must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged. The way a culture defines “truth” is largely contingent on the means, mediums, and technologies through which they receive it. Postman speaks of truth as a “cultural prejudice,” and goes on to illustrate some of our own prejudices. Our society, for instance, is largely reliant on numbers to illustrate our truth, to the point that we often consider no other source as capable of communicating economic truth. Something relatively more recent is satire. We watch shows like SNL, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show not only to laugh but to find out the latest information. Thus such sources of information determines how we derive truth. Our media has become our epistemology. And from that Postman wishes to show “that the decline of a print-based epistemology and the accompanying rise of television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life, that we are getting sillier by the minute.”

In Chapters Three through Four, Postman discusses the way that “Typographic America” influenced the “Typographic Mind.” During the colonial period and through about the mid-nineteenth century, the American populace was markedly literate and thus accustomed to approaching the world from a rational—or, at least, expository—perspective. Because the written word is based around a series of rational propositions that challenge a reader to judge them as true or false, the whole of society during this period was founded around the idea of rational discourse.

To engage the written word means to follow a line of thought, which requires considerable powers of classifying, inference-making and reasoning. It means to uncover lies, confusions, and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connection one generalization to another. To accomplish this, one must achieve a certain distance from the words themselves, which is, in fact, encouraged by the isolated and impersonal text.

The printing press was not simply a machine of the industrial age: it was a “structure for discourse,” delimiting and establishing rules, insisting upon certain kinds of content, and inevitably a certain kind of audience.

This period transitioned into “The Peek-a-Boo World, which Postman discusses in Chapter Five. With the invention of the telegraph and the photograph in the middle years of the nineteenth century, transportation and communication became disengaged from each other, “that space was not an inevitable constraint on the movement of information.” The sudden access to instantaneous information resulted in society being less driven by contextual understanding of  information and more involved with the collection of irrelevant “facts” divorced from context.

Everything Postman describes in this chapter is doubly true about the Internet. Much Internet humor derives from decontextualizing artists or politicians from their primary context, and the prevalence of photo manipulation allows a subterfuge of authority. As newspapers become part of a dying industry, replaced by a prevalence of less-researched and accountable Internet sources, one would be remiss to heed the warning that information without context can only serve to make us less informed and less driven towards any type of real action.

With Part II Postman begins discussing the television media-metaphor in more detail, examining how it has slowly infected every aspect of our public discourse. In Chapter Six, “The Age of Show Business,” he explains how “The Age of Exposition” was replaced by a spectacle that prizes flash and entertainment over substance. Entertainment has become the content of all our  discourse, to the point where the message itself is trumped by the entertainment value of its delivery. “Only those who know nothing of the history of technology,” he writes, “believe that a technology is entirely neutral.” Television as medium demands heavy editing, non-stop stimulation, and quick decisions rather than rational deliberation. These are the inherent biases of television.

In Chapter Seven, “Now…This,” Postman uses the “news of the day” to provide a metaphor for how we now receive all information. He decries how we are now “presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment.” The most horrific story only gets a short bit of attention, and then is separated from the next story. There is no time for reflection, and the entertaining aspects of the news—attractive newscasters, pleasant music, clever transitions—only reinforce the idea that the information we receive is not to be considered in the context of our lives.

In Chapters Eight through Ten, Postman examines other modes of important public discourse that have been affected, and denigrated, to entertainment under the media-metaphor of television. Chapter Eight, “Shuffle Off to Bethlehem,” examines how religion has become an empty spectacle on television—which to some degree has also transferred into the church—and thus lacks the power to deliver a truly religious experience.

Chapter Nine examines how political elections have simply become a battle of advertisements, in which candidates develop images meant to work in the same way that commercials do: namely, by offering an abstract image of what the public feels it lacks. Politicians market themselves as celebrities, meaning they are not only well-known but also seen explicitly as figures of entertainment. The Obamas are just the most recent manifestations of this, as is evidenced with both Michelle and Barack Obama appearing on numerous day-time talk shows, night-time late shows, and even syndicated comedy programs. Postman notes how over time notions of fame and celebrity has infected the political scene. Candidates do commercials, star on television shows, and present themselves as bastions of certain values regardless of the issues they claim to represent. “Television,” he writes, “does not reveal who the best man is. In fact, television makes impossible the determination of who is better than whom.” Much like the way a product is advertised, a candidate is presented as an image of who the audience wants to be: “This is the lesson of all great television commercials: They provide a slogan, a symbol or a focus that creates for viewers a comprehensive and compelling image of themselves.” But this is not an entirely new phenomena. “Tyrants of all varieties have always known about the value of providing the masses with amusements as a means of pacifying discontent.”

Chapter Ten, “Teaching as an Amusing Activity,” explores how even education is transitioning into an entertainment industry. Postman begins with a discussion of the iconic Sesame Street. When it first premiered in 1969, it quickly became a hit, largely because children saw in it the principles of television commercials, while parents loved it because it had the potential to educate in a form that children embraced. Its use of cute puppets, celebrity appearances, catchy songs, and heavy editing assuaged a society’s ever-deepening thirst for entertainment.

However, according to Postman, Sesame Street “encourages children to love school only if school is like ‘Sesame Street.'” Sesame Street, accordingly, undermines traditional pedagogy. A child cannot ask questions of what is presented on television; she learns more about images than about language; and is held to no standard of social behavior or expectation. “Whereas in a classroom, fun is never more than a means to an end, on television it is the end in itself.”

Postman ends his book with “The Huxleyan Warning,” in which he reiterates that Huxley was right. Our culture is becoming a burlesque, and will ultimately shrivel. In this concluding chapter Postman is aware that he might come off as some cantankerous Luddite, but time is proving him right.

The question should be asked if whether Amusing Ourselves to Death remains relevant for a world less defined by the media-metaphor of television than by the media-metaphor of the Internet. To this we can give a resounding yes. The concept of channel surfing has reached a new apex with the Internet, where one can find more fragmented, decontextualized information than even Postman could have imagined. His warning remains one worth considering.