Book Club: AOD – Ch.3 “Typographic America”

(Did you miss chapter 2? Click here.)

Postman has introduced us to the concept of the book. We are thinking about communication. We are thinking about how our media function as metaphors for communication. We are thinking about how we communicate affects what we communicate. Now Postman gets into his main argument. His first point, the point of this chapter, is that from its founding America was a country centered in the printed word. He quotes Richard Hofstadter:

The Founding Fathers were sages, scientists, men of broad cultivation, many of them apt in classical learning, who used their wide reading in history, politics, and law to solve the exigent problems of their time.

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Postman remarks sarcastically:

We might even say that America was founded by intellectuals, from which it has taken us two centuries and a communications revolution to recover.

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Once we look up what “exigent” means (pressing/demanding) we can appreciate these quotes. This isn’t unqualified praise of the Founding Fathers. The point is that intellectuals founded America. And these guys liked the printed word. They weren’t the only ones.

A Nation of Readers

The literacy rates in two of the Northern colonies were astounding: between 89 and 95 percent! I checked this stat out and even those who argue a lower initial literacy (60 percent) saw it rise to ninety percent within roughly a hundred years. The point is that Americans valued reading and taught their children to read.

Postman gives four reasons for this phenomenon. First, Calvinist Puritans read the Bible in the home. This required adults and children to learn to read. Second, those who came over from England largely knew how to read already. Third, the colonists saw reading and writing as necessary for a people to thrive. Literacy was such a public good they passed laws requiring children to learn to read and write. Finally, these migrants didn’t have to establish language, writing or a literary tradition. They were able to import one from their homeland. Early on a variety of books were available for consumption and the people were hungry.

The printed word took root because American colonists knew how to read, valued reading, required reading, and had reading material widely available to them.

The Paine of Reading

Of course I am talking about Thomas Paine. No, I will not apologize for the pun. Postman remarks how Paine’s book Common Sense sold more than one hundred thousand copies in 1776. And that was only in two months! In 1985 numbers that amounts to eight million copies. In 2019 that would be 16.2 million copies! (You can check out the math here) Part of our fascination with Paine is that though he was poorly educated he wrote at a sophisticated level. The guys over at Freakonomics say that only thirteen percent of adults today can actually grasp what he wrote. This is just an example of how “it was never doubted that such powers of written expression could originate from a common man” (35). As they point out in that article, today there is a smaller percentage of adults who can understand what Paine wrote (13%) then there were folks who purchased a copy (20%). Postman’s point here is that Paine’s success highlights how the ability to reading levels the playing field across the classes. The printed word makes ideas widely accessible and fosters conversation.

Three More Signs of Literacy

Postman runs through how print became embedded in American life. He describes the rise of newspapers, construction of libraries, and an unusual interest in speeches. Visitors to America took notice: “All were impressed with the high level of literacy and in particular its extension to all classes” (39).

Postman concludes:

The point all this is leading to is that from its beginning until well into the nineteenth century, America was dominated by the printed word as any society we know of…The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly.

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The point of this chapter was pretty simple: America was founded as a nation of readers. Our main metaphor for two hundred years was the printed word. We still see it. The ability to read is widely encouraged. Educators preach the benefits of reading. Reading is an indicator of a child’s future success. My wife and I consider it a great accomplishment to teach one of our children to read. But reading has its competitors doesn’t it? Video games, movies, YouTube, social media across so many devices are all screaming for our attention. At times it feels as though it is a siren’s song. It’s pleasing until you remember the rocks.

There isn’t much to comment on here. Postman is making a somewhat obvious point. I think we should start taking stock of the ways we communicate. Clearly print no longer has a monopoly upon us. Technology does. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like anything there are strengths and liabilities. I think we can focus our thinking on a single question: How does the variety of communication metaphors affect our ability to think and express our thoughts with others?

For myself I find the many options fracture my ability to concentrate. I want to think deeply about things. I want to wrestle with big ideas. And while many of our metaphors are good for exposing me to new ideas, they are not good at depth. I am working to reduce and focus my use of the various metaphors. I am not cutting myself off, but focusing primarily upon the printed word. I still listen to audio books and I have my Kindle e-reader. I am free to use the internet, but need to be laser focused. I also need time away from these metaphors to think and write.

I heard a pastor from Kenya preach at a large American church. His favorite thing to do was to go to Walmart. It’s the options that amazed him. Twenty different kinds of toothpaste? Amazing. What a strength! What an opportunity! What a problem. Having so many options can prevent us from being effective. As he said, “How can you serve Christ if you can’t put down the remote?”

What do you think? How do the many communication metaphors (print, internet, social media, etc.) affect your life? Contact me here. Thanks for reading!

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