Excerpt: 'The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books'
A Sudden Gust of Wind (After Hokusai), Jeff Wall, 1993
For half a millennium, across continents and civilizations, the human readership did almost nothing but grow and consolidate itself. Constantly more people in more and more places could read, and could read more books more cheaply, with increasing ease. And not only were they able to do this, but they chose to. It would be astonishing to learn, if some retrospective survey could be carried out, that hours per head spent reading didn’t increase across all capitalist or otherwise modernizing countries (most Communist regimes having been energetic promoters of literacy) until at least the middle of the past century.
A few years ago, the French thinker Régis Debray published a brilliant and suggestive essay placing the rise and decline of socialist movements within this frame of ever-greater literacy. The question of socialism can be bracketed for now. More relevant, for the future of reading in general and novel-reading in particular, is Debray’s periodization scheme, in which an immemorial logosphere—the spoken-word realm of the great religions, whose holy texts had been pronounced by God, transcribed and commented on by a small caste of literate men, and received as gospel by an unlettered general population—was succeeded, starting in 1464, with the invention of Gutenberg’s press, by a spreading graphosphere, in which an oral relationship to words was supplemented, for mounting numbers of ordinary people, by a literate relationship to them. The demi-millenium of the graphosphere lasted, on Debray’s account, until 1968, dawn of the videosphere.
The status of 1968 as a watershed no doubt seems more inevitable, less merely convenient, for a Frenchman of Debray’s generation than for an American born after the event. Still, the shift he describes is unmistakable. It’s not, of course, that inhabitants of the videosphere no longer read, any more than residence in the graphosphere made it impossible to attend the Latin Mass. And the diffusion of radio, decades before TV, had already overlaid the graphosphere with a new kind of electronic orality. So had movie theaters projecting black and white films offered a prewar premonition of the videosphere. But, starting sometime in the first decades after the Second World War, people in the west began to read less (as studies from different countries, including the US, confirm), and what they did read, according to Debray, exercised less sway over them than what they saw in printed or—especially—moving images.
To the logosphere corresponds the dominance of the spoken and heard; to the graphosphere, that of the written and read; and to the videosphere, that of mass-produced audiovisuals received electronically.