Wireless and the Future of Reading

The Catholic Press – Thursday 22 November 1934

Wireless and the Future of Reading


Prophets of change sometimes paint a depressing picture of a world that will have ceased to wish to read. Newspapers and books, they tell us, will alike have vanished. Wireless and television will have progressed to such an extent that our lazy descendants will be able by merely turning a knob to see and hear all the great happenings of the world—a much more exciting experience than reading about them.

As for books, wireless and television will restore the natural conditions that existed before printing, or even writing, was invented. The first poems were not read out of books. They were recited by bards, and were listened to by enraptured and illiterate audiences. I do not know what the latest theory about Homer is but many people used to believe that he was not a writer, but a reciter. Poetry was then addressed to the ear; the function of the eye was not to spell out innumerable words, but to watch the changing expression on the face of a man inspired. Wireless developments may make all this possible again. The Masefields and Yeatses of the future may speak their verse to the whole world through the air, and so be brought into far closer personal contact with those who love and admire their work than is possible between author and reader.

Reading Has Advantages.

I am not a prophet, but I am fairly confident that this will never happen. The newspaper and the book, I am sure, will both survive while human beings are human beings. Wireless is an admirable invention, but, unless a wireless station can devote its whole time to news, it will never be able to give us as wide and complete a survey of the day’s events as a newspaper does. It is true that, in the description of a horse-race or a Rugby football match, a good speaker on the wireless can make us almost feel as if we were present. He has the great advantage over the writer that the issue is in doubt, or is often in doubt, till the last sentence. Thus, we can enjoy all the pleasures and pains of apprehension. The writer, poor fellow, writes for an audience that has looked at the result before it begins to read his article. The fact remains, however, that, even when we have listened-in to a football match on the wireless, we still want to read about it in the newspaper. We want to know other people’s impressions of the play. I am not sure, indeed, that having seen or listened-in to an exciting game does not actually make us all the more eager to read about it. I saw the last Oxford and Cambridge match at Twickenham but this did not prevent me from eagerly devouring one report after another of the game. In the same way, if I go to a first-night at the opera or in the theatre, I read the criticisms in the newspapers next day not with diminished, but with intensified curiosity.

Newspapers Will Survive

Apart from this, the newspaper has some positive advantages over wireless as a purveyor of news. If you want to be sure of hearing the item of news that will interest you most on the wireless, you have to listen to the whole news. In the newspaper we can skip telegrams from Bogota or stories about the divorces of film stars, or the results of hockey matches. I do not know what proportion of the contents of a newspaper the ordinary man reads. I cannot believe that anybody but a madman ever reads a newspaper right through from beginning to end. Many people never read foreign news unless it is sensational. Readers of a different kind never read the reports of trials for murder. Others omit the city page, or are indifferent to sport, books, or fashion. We buy a newspaper, indeed, not in order to read the whole of it, but in the belief that all the news is there, and that we shall be able to pick out rapidly the items that will interest us. Like the menu in a good restaurant, it confronts us with more than we can possibly consume, and gives us immense freedom of choice. It is largely because the reader will always and necessarily have so much more freedom than the listener-in that the newspapers will survive all the most ingenious inventions. The only freedom one enjoys on the wireless, apart from changing the station, is to turn the thing off. The newspaper-reader, however, is free even while he is reading the newspaper.

As for books, they, too, leave us the blessed privilege of skipping. I have always thought that one of the worst defects of the theatre is that it takes just as long to hear a bad play as a good one, while a bad book can be read skippingly in less than an hour. Novels read aloud over the wireless would have the same defect. Everybody who has been read to aloud knows how few books can endure this test. The ordinary book would be intolerable if we could not skip, and books chosen for reading aloud should be books of which we can enjoy every word—books like “Price and Prejudice” and “Treasure Island.” Even many good books are all the better for judicious skipping.

Where Books Please

I am, I may say, a devotee of the wireless, but I am not devoted to it to the point of believing that the wireless set and television can ever supplant the book. Many excellent authors have had unpleasant voices. Others have had eccentricities such as would have distracted the attention from their work to themselves. Speaking and writing are different arts, as is clear from the fact that even the greatest orator in English political history, Edmund Burke, bored his audiences by his wretched delivery as surely as he fascinated his readers in print. One of the great blessing we owe to the invention of writing and printing, it seems to me, is that they enabled men to enjoy an author’s work without having come into personal contact with him. It is a charming experience to meet authors outside their books, but we do not want them to read them aloud to us. We can idealise them most easily when they are not oppressively before us. Can Wordsworth ever have spoken “The Highland Reaper” in as beautiful a voice as we imagine when we read it? The poet if genius, when read to oneself, has perfections that only the imagination can create.

The invention of books enables 50 people to sit after dinner in a hotel lounge, each reading his own chosen book and no man interfering with his neighbour’s pleasure, unless someone reading a comic author is unable to control his emotions. Compare what happens if a loud-speaker is turned on: immediately half the people present have a grievance. That is the weak point about many of these modern inventions—the pianola, the gramophone, and wireless. They cannot be enjoyed privately in public. Often, in order to enjoy them, one has to sit in a room by oneself and to shut all the windows for fear of annoying one’s fellow human beings. I cannot exchange its golden silence for even the most ingenious novelties of noise.


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