Read or watch?
That is the question in the age of computers
October 27, 2000
Hidden Meaning of Mass Communication: Cinema , Books, and Television in
the Age of Computers (2000, Praeger Publishers) by Fereydoun Hoveyda.
One Saturday afternoon in 1930 I accompanied my mother and brother to
atheater showing Ben Hur. Although talkies had already come to Beirut,
silent hits continued to be shown in the multicultural Lebanese capital,
especially when they contained footage about Jesus.
Overwhelmed by the action-packed feature, I remained glued to the silver
screen till the very end and heartily participated in the general clapping
that blared when the curtain fell (Indeed Fred Niblo's production was excellent
and some of its episodes such as the naval battle and the chariot race,
still stand in good stead compared to contemporary digitally supported
and over-budgeted 'historical' extravaganzas).
On our way back home, my brother who was my elder by five years, explained:
"This is exactly the book!". I couldn't believe my ears until,
the next day, when he brought back from his class library Lew Wallace's
This incident captured my imagination. Films equated with books! An
extraordinary idea dawned in my mind: films could replace books! "What
the heck do I care," I thought to myself. "No more tedious classrooms!
Schools will soon look like cinemas where instead of reading books, kids
will learn directly from the screen!". I was in second grade, painfully
struggling with grammar, orthograph and vocabulary, while images on the
screen spoke instantly to me, without any previous preparation!
I already had learned a lot of geography, history, psychology,words
and expressions from films. I knew Hugo's Les Miserables,Shakespeare's
Romeo and Juliet, Dumas' Three Musketeers, Dickens' Oliver
Twist and some other literary masterpieces. Cinema was also an uncomparable
window on the world. At age 6, I became familiar with exotic sites in the
Pacific as well as fabulous countries of the East and West: China, Japan,
America, France, England, Germany, Russia and so on.
Beyond geography, "politics" also penetrated my environment
through newsreels. I could recognize England's King George V, Italy's Mussolini,
Russia's Stalin, Japan's Hiro Hito, etc; I watched with amazement riots,
strikes, local wars and what not. I even learned a lot about America's
conquest of the West through Tom Mix's westerns!
I did not understand my brother's appetite for books, a form of transfer
of knowledge I already considered obsolete! I envisioned a world in which
"moving images" would replace written and printed words.Writers
would use a camera instead of a pen and education would spread instantly
all over the planet! But as the years passed, nothing of the sort happened
and my former enthusiastic hopes gradually evaporated. Although I never
surrendered to our teachers' contention about the so-called "superiority"
of books over films, I came to look at cinema as sheer entertainment.
Later on, I completely forgot my childhood musings about a "filmic"
revolution in education After completion of my studies, I settled in Paris
and became an assiduous patron of the recently founded "Cinematheque
" (Film Library) where Henri Langlois showed his collections of pre-war
European and American movies. I also read a lot and occasionally witnessed
discussions between writers and filmmakers about the "unique"
advantages of their respective crafts.
One day I found in a 1917 Guillaume Apollinaire interview the following
assertion: "(Books) will die in one or two centuries.They would be
succeeded by phonographic disks and cinematographic films. People would
not any more need to read and write". This remark, awakened in my
mind the forgotten memory of my childhood's wool gatherings. I was baffled
: early in the century, when cinema and recordings were stillin their infancy,
the great French poet had sounded the death knell of books. Only a few
years before me! I felt somehow proud of thisc oincidence!
Yet, after almost a century, Apollinaire's prophesy (mine too!) has
still not come true. I wonder what his reactions would have been to the
current technological revolution that is sweeping the fields of information
and communications. He would probably have felt vindicated to some extent,
if not completely. Indeed television and other audio-visual innovations
have steadily gnawed on the time people devote to reading. Even newspapers
and magazines have lost many readers.
The least one can say is that the satellite, computer and internet agewhich
is just dawning on humanity, has already produced a notable change in our
habits and cultural environment . They have not only accentuated the shift
from book to screen , but caused a visible switch from print to what might
be called a "digital culture". Nevertheless, old debates about
books and films die hard and continue to pit the literary establishment
against the rising audio-visual crowd.
On top of that, the unceasing flow of technological inventions in the
field of communication worries governments and educators. In democratic
open societies, politicians and private organizations decry the access
of children to "unfit" material. In less developed countries,
the free flow of information threatens authoritarian leaders and frightens
traditionalists and conservatives. The latter denounce"Western cultural
invasion",while the formers see a direct threat to their grip on power.
All these bickerings blur and obfuscate the discussions concerning the
future of books and films in the new electronic "information age".
Are we really witnessing the end of the "Gutemberg Galaxy" (Marshall
McLuhan)? Will books "die" (Apollinaire)? Are we entering a new
age in the fields of communication and entertainment? To find answers to
such questions, it seems useful to try to evaluate the reciprocal influences
of films and literature on each other, as well as the impact of new technologies
on both of them.
Fereydoun Hoveyda was Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from
1971 to 1978. To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit www.hoveyda.org.