1984 – The Managed Culture
Is 1984 a watershed year marking a real change for Western society? Or is it simply a myth created by one book and showing, in a single, simple stroke, the power of a book to affect that society? I believe it to be both, with the latter being part of the cause of the former.
The range, influence and effect of the Orwellian non-book society needed – yes, a book to announce it. Nearly forty years later Dr Christopher Evans, in The Mighty Micro, foresaw the beginning of the end of the book within ten years from the date on which he was writing. Half that period has now gone by, yet more books than ever are being sold and borrowed.
All this might lead us to hear a cry of ‘Wolf!’. Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. There is a threat to the book as we know it and a very real one at that. The new technology, from television through computer to home video, has been rumbling off-stage for so long that some people had begun to think that the threats were overstated. Then, suddenly, we are deluged by it. Harmless shops like W. H. Smith confront us with home computers and all the accessory gadgets, children dashing past their large and varied book displays to reach the toys and gadgets inviting their attention. Sunday paper colour supplements have whole pages and, sometimes, several pages at a time, extolling the cheapness or brilliance or usefulness of this or that computer system.
The threat, too, is very real. No one of us would deny the usefulness of the computer to a dozen facets of our lives any more than we would advocate pounding pecan nuts by the hour when the ‘Magimix’ will produce the paste in seconds. But there are darker sides than this. The new technology has cost multi-millions to develop. Some of it has needed consortia even of international corporations to make the research, tests and final products. Gigantic investments made, such producers are not going to stand around asking questions about the good of society or children. They are going to fight ruthlessly to secure what they consider a fair return on their capital invested. If this means seducing children from books, denying them the glorious heritage that the rest of us have had, so much the worse. They are in business, not welfare.
This means that efforts to sell the new technology, to make people feel they can’t be without it, above all to make children feel this (see IBM’s current adverts for selling computers which cheekily tell the parent: ‘Your child will explain it to you’) will he relentless.
Before I go on to say why I think this would be a near-catastrophe for the post-1984 society, may I enter a quick caveat? I am not claiming that computers are evil or their makers and sellers likewise. I am not saying they are an unmitigated disaster for mankind or for children. They have their excellences and their uses, many of which will enhance our lives. What I am saying is that if their use is at the cost of reading books, then this would have very serious consequences for our society; consequences we should not lightly risk. I am making large claims, so let us start to see if we can justify them. In her introduction to the recently published Bedford Papers: Open Moves, Margaret Meek writes:
It is widely taken for granted, and recent studies confirm, that children who have had experience of books and stories read to them are likely to make a good start in learning to read and in school life generally.
In itself that would make a very good reason for promoting the cause of the book and resisting any trend to buck its use brought about by the technological revolution. But this is just a start. Quite apart from a child’s need to succeed at school is his or her need to develop as a whole human being. Such development depends greatly on the effortless assimilation of race memories and totems, an assimilation that depends very largely on myth (and fairy tale). Leon Garfield and Edward Blishen summed it up in The God Beneath the Sea:
The human experience brought to mind by myth and fairy tale extends beyond the situation described by psychologists and anthropologists. It is conscious as well as unconscious, and civilised as well as primitive.
Neither ‘Coronation Street’ nor ‘Crossroads’ will supply the elements of emotional development that is indicated in this quote. We shall pay a heavy price in the future if we deprive children of their share in the telling and reading of these myths, a price which no fluency at the computer console will lessen.
As the book has developed over years, the book, that is, as against just print, it has exhibited and caused to exhibit a number of factors which may indicate that it has its own totem values, the stressing of which can only run counter to the mood of the wholesale embracing of the new technology. As a package it induces its own reverence.
Of course people do deface books, turn down corners, spill coffee on them, underline their words and the like. But there is an overall feeling that this particular package has something sacrosanct about it. People are reluctant to throw books away; the burning of books is seen as a decisive political act even if thousands more copies of the same books are available elsewhere. Books are, in short, very collectable and highly valued once collected, quite regardless of their financial worth. Children, too, who are natural collectors, like to collect books once fired with the idea; and will cling to them long after collections of butterflies or stamps, postcards or posters have ceased to mean very much. This truth about the book as a package is a valuable one to those of us who believe in it: most people hooked on the habit never lose it.
The book is not collectable without reason. It is cheap. Before a thousand brickbats are hurled in my direction, stop and think: it really is! Just think in terms of entertainment, knowledge and convenience what the expenditure of a pound will produce. Pit it against almost anything else in terms of entertainment or consumption and the value holds. It is marvellously portable and can be taken anywhere including places where much of the new technology is inadmissible (eg aeroplanes); and it is extremely flexible. You can flick backwards and forwards to establish a meaning or piece of knowledge at a rate that would make a tape recorder giddy!
The book is private. We live in a world where noise daily intrudes on our thinking and working, not to mention our sleep. One television set, one radio or hi-fi, and 100 or 500 people’s attention and concentration can be destroyed. 500 people reading different books even in the same space will not trespass on each other for a second. In an overcrowded world this is no small advantage.
Now if only my arguments in favour of the book are 50% right – no – 25%, then it is vital that we get these reasons across to the young and those responsible for their upbringing. Now this is not so difficult a task as many make it out to be. Computers and video may be exciting, but for most the excitement wears off quickly. Books produce a wholly different and deeper excitement, a commitment and experience that not only lasts but tends to grow of its own accord. Watch a child being told a story: watch a child reading a story and this becomes self-evident.
So we must bring to our task of educating the child in the excellences of the book every weapon and wile we can lay our hands on. Magazines like Books for Keeps inform those promoting the book to the child, make that promotion more sure, more authoritative; even more easy. Likewise, parental example is a major force: seeing parents read books, hearing them read books, watching them unselfconsciously enjoying books is worth a hundred computer demonstrations. Exhibitions and book fairs, competitions based on books, talks and readings of and about books – all these constantly and enthusiastically promoted will ensure that whatever else 1984 marks it will not be the start of the end of the book.
The child needs the book because society needs the book. It does not matter how many machines and gadgets an office possesses, at the end of the day the success of that office will he ruled by the success of human communication between those operating it. That communication depends on words and words are more easily learnt, weighed and assimilated by book reading than any other way.
The American historian Barbara Tuchman emphasised that above all we can use the book at our own pace:
The essential nature of television is that its programme is designed not for self-expression but to sell something other than itself to the greatest number of viewers. Books, being self-selected by the consumer, can keep pace with his growing maturity in age and taste, whereas the media on the whole must remain at a /eve/ that its programmers believe palateable to the widest possible audience . . . Books by their heterogeneity can never represent a managed culture, whereas the airwaves by their nature and control by licensing might. The book remains the carrier of civilisation, the voice of the individual, the ‘refreshment of the magic page’.
1984 was a positive statement of the terrifying danger of a managed culture’. We need the book to oppose that danger. We owe it to the young to make sure that the truth of this message becomes their own.
Martyn Goff OBE FRSA. has been Director of the National Book League since 1970. His many activities include writing, reviewing, bookselling and membership of a host of panels, councils and committees (including the SBA) which give him a unique view of all sides of the world of books. He is an accomplished and enthusiastic campaigner for books and reading, well-known and respected in this country and internationally.
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