Print Culture 101: A Cheat Sheet and Syllabus

The shortcut to getting up to speed on the debate over the future of reading, writing, and media


Editor's Note: So, people no longer just read ink printed on paper. Now that the electronic word has become embedded in our lives, we have a new perspective on what might have been special and specific about the last few hundred years of information dissemination. Think of this annotated syllabus from C.W. Anderson (@chanders) as your cheat sheet for the print/digital culture debates. (Oh, and I put a special visual treat the end, so make sure you read to the end.)

When I said that I was busy putting a syllabus together for a course on "Print Culture" at CUNY's College of Staten Island this fall, Alexis Madrigal asked me if I'd be willing to share the syllabus development process with the larger online community. I was more than happy to oblige -- and also a little bit scared. It's one thing to put your course outline up at your own website which you're pretty sure no one will read it but your captive students; it's quite another to put yourself out there publicly when you're teaching a class for the first time. But I'm hoping that one of the things this post might do is to serve as a larger space for discussion and feedback about how, exactly, we should teach this history of print media in a digital age. I know there are experts out there -- and I'd love for them to weigh in. As Dan Gilmor wrote in another context, my audience knows more than I do. So help me out in the comments section.

(By the way-- if you're interested to get actual page numbers of the readings and occasional pdf's to download, check out my course website, which be be online sometime early next week).

The specific title of the class is "COM 230: History of Print Media." I'm calling the class "a history of print culture." The primary goal of this class is to teach students about the culture of "print media" in an era when that culture is being joined (and in some cases, overtaken) by a culture that we might variously call digital culture, online culture, or the culture of the web. What does "print" mean in our digital age? And what does "culture," mean, for that matter? By culture I mean something that is not reducible to "economics," "technology," "politics," or "organizations" -- although culture emerges out of the nexus of these different factors, and others.  In other words, I want to disabuse my students of the notion that new technologies or new economic arrangements can create digital or print culture in the same way that a cue ball hits a billiard ball on a pool table.

The second theme of the class is an "anti-eschatological" one. I want to convince my students that different media cultures don't replace each other in any sort of straight line. Rather, a culture of orality joins up with, and mixes with a culture of printing, which itself mixes with (but is not vanquished by) digital culture, and so on. Different technological aspects may predominate in different times and under different circumstances, but they never dominate completely, and old media forms often pop back up in unexpected ways. I think this point was nicely made by Matthew Battles in his series of reviews of Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky last month. (And in a different context, by Alexis Madrigal, too.)

I also mentioned I wanted to share a caveat, which is this: this is a class for undergraduates, which makes it tough to know how to include certain important readings. For example, take Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. It's a-- perhaps the-- classic book on the arrival of the printing press in Europe in the late 15th century. But unless I want to make my students read all of it, it's hard to know for sure what to excerpt, since so much of the book is concerned with (a) scholarly debates and (b) presumes a certain prior knowledge.

The Books

I'm drawing on four books in this class, and am supplementing them with a number of other readings.The first book, recommended to me by the aforementioned Matt Battles, is A History of the Book in America: Volume III: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880.It's a collection of essays written by prominent historians that deal with various aspects of book culture in the United States in the 19th century. It covers some great subject areas. The second book is A Short History of the Printed Word, by Warren Chappell and Robert Bringhurst. The great thing about this book is that it tackles printing from a technological perspective, talking about the evolution of print from the 1400's to the present. It does a good job of showing that printing has changed over the centuries; it isn't a single, static thing that's now getting replaced by computers. The third book is The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control, by Ted Striphas. Striphas does a nice job of countering some of the techno-determinism present in many proclamations about the digital age, discussing how books and the book industry actually operate in the early 21st century. He's also got a great blog, which I'm thinking will be just as valuable for the class as the book is (which, by the way, you can actually download in Creative Commons format here).

The final book is Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Now -- I disagree with a lot of what Carr argues in The Shallows (particularly his general tone, as well as his over-emphasis on neuroscience and psychology). So why would I assign the book in class? Well, to be honest, precisely because I instinctively react against it: I want it to challenge me and my students over the course of the fall. I want to argue with it-- and who knows, maybe I'll come to agree with it if I feel like I'm losing the argument. And also: it's topical and well written, and will serve as a nice, current entry into some of the larger themes of the class.

bain news service.jpg

So what would each week of "A History of Print Culture" look like? Here's a tentative outline.

Week One: What is Print? What is Culture?
This is where we're going to first encounter Elizabeth Eisenstein's work on the printing press as an agent of change. I thought it would be good to start the class off with the classic overview. We'll also be trying to understand what I mean by "culture"-- and how it isn't just technology or economics-- through a reading of Clifford Geertz's "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight."

Week Two: Technological Determinism vs Social Construction; or, What Does a Medium Do?
Next off, we've got to problematize students' natural notions that technologies "do" things to other things. I want to push back against their idea that the printing press "caused" a revolution on its own, or that the internet "causes" books or newspapers to die. There's no better overview of the various tensions between technological construction and determinism than the first 20 pages of Claude Fisher's 's America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. We're also going to read some Nicholas Carr this week, as he also discusses various deterministic tensions surrounding technology.

Weeks Three and Four: From Orality to Literacy to Print
More Nicholas Carr these two weeks, but the highlight (at least for me) is going to be reading of the first chapter of Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato. In this book, Havelock argues that Plato's bizarre attack on Homeric poetry in The Republic is symptomatic of a larger Greek movement away from a culture of orality and towards a culture of literacy. Preface to Plato is also an example of an old book that many (particularly classical) scholars have taken issue with for a whole host of reasons, but still serves as a great introduction to important issues in the field. In week four, we're going to be diving into A Short History of the Printed Word, as we tackle some of the issues involved in the emergence of what scholars call the Incunabula.

Week Five: The Invention of Newspapers
I teach a lot about journalism, and I'm actually excited to be discussing other things in this particular class, so I'm not spending a whole lot of time on "the news" per se. This week, though, we're going to be discussing the relationship of newspapers to the "public sphere," primarily via an essay by John Nerone. But I also want to modernize the discussion a little bit, and I'm going to try to do that by having students read Jay Rosen's blog post, "The Afghanistan War Logs Released by Wikileaks, the World's First Stateless News Organization." If newspapers helped facilitate the emergence of a national public sphere, is the internet creating a post-national public sphere?

Week Six: The Invention of The Author
What's the relationship between printing, books, and authorship? Did the "author" get invented when the printing press did? Some classic "post-modernism" here. There's an essay by Williams, "Authors and Literary Authorship," in A History of the Book in America: Volume III: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880.And under these circumstances, who can ignore Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author"? For me, though, the most fun is going to be showing and discussing this clip about William S. Burroughs and his infamous "cut up" technique of writing. In this clip, Burroughs tells Alan Ginsberg that "that if the whole universe consists of pre-recordings, then the only things that aren't pre-recordings are the pre-recordings themselves. Thus, if one tampers with those pre-recordings; one is tampering with the very fabric of the universe." Heavy, man. Heavy. But hey, that's what college is for.

Week Seven and Eight: Copyright
Ideas about the invention of the author take us to copyright. While there are some newer books about the history of copyright out there, I couldn't think of any better text for my class than a few chapters from Siva Vaidhyanathan's Copyright and Copywrongs. Vaidhyanathan does a great job of making the raging debates about history current, and he's also a terrific writer. In week eight, we'll be doing a bit more on copyright, this time from the perspective of the copyright pirates! I'm in the middle of Adrian Johns' Piracy: A History of Copyright Wars From Gutenberg to Gates, and can't wait to teach it.

Week Nine: The Print Network Booksellers, Libraries, Google
Print has a place; it exists in space as well as in time. From Striphas' The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control we're going to read a chapter on the "Big Boxstore Blues," about how books get sold and marketed in 2010. But what about libraries? And is Google better than a library? Here, I'm going to give my students a great, recent essay by Robert Darnton, "The Library in the New Age." (Incidentally, Darnton is one of the founders of the scholarly area known as "Book Studies," with his 1982 article, "What is the History of Books?")

Week Ten: What Does it Mean to Read a Book?
We've talked about where reading occurs, but how does it feel to engage with print culture? In Week Ten, we'll be talking about Janice Radway's famous Reading the Romance, which I've also taught in my class on media audiences. Bringing Radway a little more up to date, I also want my students to check out the chapter on Oprah's Book Club from Striphas' Late Age of Print.

Week Eleven: Print and the Public Sphere(s)?
Back to the public sphere again. This time, we'll be coming at it from the angle of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities, which is a reflection on how printing (along with other things) helped bind people together as nations in the 18th and 19th centuries. Here's where we'll have to get back to issues of technological determinism, again, as well as questions about digitization and a "post-national" public sphere from week five. We're also going to be reading an essay by DeLombard, "African American Cultures of Print" from A History of the Book, which will hopefully prompt a good discussion about what it means to say we've got a single "public sphere."

Week Twelve and Thirteen: The End of Print?
We bring the class current during the last two weeks. We go back to Carr, and give Clay Shirky a chance to weigh in with his "Why Abundance is Good: A Reply to Nick Carr." More Striphas and Binghurst as well, as we revisit some of our old authors and ponder what it means to say we live in a "digital age."

So that's it! Again, feel free to weigh in with your thoughts and suggestions. I'm sure the good students of New York will appreciate it ... and if they don't, I will.


1. The L letter page of my old Spanish dictionary, close-up / Alexis Madrigal.
2. Printing the Bain News Service / Library of Congress
3. Dusting books at the New York Public Library, obviously / NYPL