Why has our culture become increasingly violent? Barry Sanders believes the root of the problem can be traced to a widespread collapse in individuals' "self-sustaining interior lives." Without firm senses of our own identity, the argument runs, we aren't able to relate to other people in a meaningful fashion. He attributes the disintegration of the inner self to a decline in literacy. Literacy, according to Sanders, is what makes critical thinking possible--not merely the ability to read and write but the capability of learning from what one has read and sharing one's insights with others.
The breadth of Sanders's argument is impressive. An exploration of the American cultural attitudes that led to the aggressive support of the 1991 conflict in Iraq, for example, delves into the neoconservative philosophy of Allan Bloom's >The Closing of the American Mind. Sanders can be overly dogmatic in his insistence that computer technology cannot contribute to the type of literacy he champions, as in his claim that writing with a word processor inspires less respect for language than writing directly onto paper. Although he is certainly correct to say that using a word processor is a fundamentally different experience from any other form of writing (a notion Steven Johnson explores thoughtfully in Interface Culture), one simply cannot lump together all other writing technologies, such as pencils and electric typewriters, and say that word processing is the opposite. His assertion that no genuine conversation could occur in cyberspace seems equally harsh.
But Sanders cannot and should not be dismissed as a neo-Luddite. He has clearly given deep consideration to the importance of direct participation in the social discourse, and his call to enrich our inner lives by engaging ourselves in the lives of others is worth hearing out.
A sprawling, provocative conversation with loose ends that are the forgivable product of a literate mind grappling with big issues. The various meanings of ``mean'' and its derivatives are the foundation of Sanders's (Sudden Glory, 1995, etc.; English/Pitzer Coll.) exploration of public discourse, and additional touchstones range from Huck Finn to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Mostly obituary but part prescription, this volume offers the basic argument that life has turned mean with the draining of meaning from public discourse. The private, interior life rooted in the literacy acquired through reading and writing has been lost through hours of staring at screens; reading a book is a private act, while watching TV blurs the distinction between public and private. Without an interior space offering distance from the immediate moment, reflection, thought, and the potential for meaningful participation in public discourse disappears. Life becomes the mindless pursuit of gratification, and ``gratification knows only one tense, the present.'' In this world the quintessential public spaces where everyone interacts on an equal footing are prisons and casinos, and pseudo-discourse replaces democratic discussion: ``Bluster passes for expansiveness, rant for power.'' The antidote for this depressingly convincing description of American society is a rebuilding of the country, ``a liberation through language.'' To regenerate public discourse, however, people must turn off their televisions and rebuild their inner lives by talking, reading, and writing. Unfortunately, Sanders describes nothing that suggests this will happen. Perhaps there is hope in what is missing: His historical account of the loss of interior life, as well as the connection between literacy and space--terms used metaphorically as well as literally--are not always clear and complete. But there may be an insurmountable problem here, for only those who already read books will read this one. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.