Sunday, October 02, 2005

Important Books About Television (and not TV shows about books)

I have found the following books to be significant assessments of the nature and effects of television and electronic media in general. (These books are not primarily about the Internet. That would require another bibliography). Reading about television (which we do not read, but watch) is one judicious way to gain a perspective on it not available otherwise. Abstaining from television for long periods of time is another preferred method for gaining insights about its effect on one’s soul and the soul of a culture.

1. Baudrillard, Jean. The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Trans. James Benedict. New York: Verso, 1993. One needs patience to read Baudrillard, at least in translation. Perhaps he is more intelligible in French. Nevertheless, this often enigmatic book is studded with arresting observations on the effects of media technologies on culture. Some have taken Baudrillard to be a kind of French McLuhan, although Baudrillard (unlike McLuhan) is an atheist with nihilistic tendencies (especially evident in Impossible Exchange. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002).

2. Birkerts, Swen. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994. A wise analysis of how reading and a literary approach to life have been marginalized by electronic media in general. Birkerts is not a Christian, but appears “close to the kingdom” in much of his analysis.

3. Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Trans. Joyce Main Hanks. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985. A historical, sociological, and theological critique of the dominance of images over words in culture and religion. There is one chapter specifically about television. Ellul offers both a lamentation and a summons to change. A uniquely profound treatment of the subject.

4. Hibbs, Thomas S. Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture From The Exorcist to Seinfield. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 1999. Hibbs discusses the content, or philosophy, of recent popular movies and television programs that reveal a nihilistic, “demonic anti-providence” worldview.

5. Hunt, Arthur. The Vanishing Word: The Veneration of Visual Imagery in the Postmodern World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003. A specifically Christian assessment of the domination of our culture by visual imagery. Address television specifically, but looks at the phenomena of the “vanishing word” more broadly. Reviewed in Denver Journal at:

6. Mander, Jerry. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1978. Don’t let the extreme title throw you off the scent. Mander marshals impressive arguments against the very existence of television. This is not a Christian perspective per se, but Christians should find much of value.

7. Mander, Jerry. In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991. Although not primarily about television, Mander’s insights into the dehumanizing effects of electronic media technologies are valuable. In his exposure of the injustices done to Native Americans, he may romanticize their way of life somewhat.

8. McKibben, Bill. The Age of Missing Information. New York: Plumb, 1993. McKibben’s thesis is that television keeps important information from us. He compares watching a day’s worth of television programming on all 93 cable television stations to a twenty-four hour experience atop an Adirondack mountain!

9. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996; original publication, 1964. McLuhan was a seminal thinker, despite his eccentricities and inconsistencies. He is still pertinent and was prophetic about much of the digital revolution. “The medium is the message” is the rare sound bite that carries a momentous meaning.

10. Mittroff, Ian I. and Warren Bennis. The Unreality Industry: The Deliberate Manufacturing of Falsehood and What it is Doing to Our Lives. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. On the dangerous and pervasive effects of television in general on American culture.

11. Muggerride, Malcolm. Christ and the Media. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977. Muggerridge was a wonderful wordsmith and a veteran of British media, who converted later in life. His reflections are deep and controversial.

12. Owens, Virginia Stem. The Total Image: Or Selling Jesus in the Modern Age. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980. Christian reflections on the nature of television (not merely its content), especially in relation to presenting the Christian message. This is well written and wise, if little known.

13. Postman, Neil, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. New York: Dell, 1979. Although not primarily about television, Postman argues that teaching should be “thermostatic” in that it counters what is dominant and taken-for-granted in culture. He finds television to be “the first curriculum” that must be challenged by education.

14. Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin, 1985. Probably the best overall assessment of television. Brilliantly analyzes the nature of the medium (“the medium is the metaphor”), its severe limitations for carrying public discourse, and its relation to the print-dominated sensibilities of earlier American life. Postman also makes incisive comments on how religion, education, politics, and news are affected by television. Highly recommended.

15. Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Postman’s larger critique of the effects of technology on culture. He claims we have moved beyond a technocracy into a technopoly (his coined term) wherein technology defines every aspect of culture. Very penetrating.

16. Postman, Neil and Steve Powers. How to Watch Television News. New York: Penguin, 1993. Media-critic Postman teams up with television journalist Steve Powers to explain the inner workings of television news. Not surprisingly, things are not as they “appear”—news anchors are often not trained journalists (but highly paid celebrities), news can be manufactured instead of reported, and the pressures of time and money make accurate reporting difficult if not impossible.

17. Shachtman, Tom. The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America. New York: The Free Press, 1995. This thoughtfully explores the decline in eloquent speech in American culture, much of which is traced to the influence of television. A challenge to “the mumbling multitudes” (p. 260).

1 comment:

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...


You made my day. That is why I do it.

A Happy (for now) Curmudgeon