April 2, 1988
754 Lost Mountain Road
Sequim, Washington 98372
Many thanks for
asking me to review the manuscript ‘Print, Palaver, and Prime Time:
Public Discourse in Transition'[which
you are considering for publication at Bartleby Press.
By all means publish
it. (Though you might want to talk with him about another
title—I’d suggest The
Incredible Shrinking Man for reasons I hope I can make clear
later.) It is a coherent book after all, though I doubted that at
first glance, as you seem to have done as well. I agree that it
doesn't really draw up into a bang of a conclusion but now after a
careful reading I see that it can't, and shouldn’t try to.
I was thinking of
the Borges essay, it seems like it was in Other
in which he calls into question the belief started by Goethe that
significant historical moments can be identified when they happen.
That's all we get for television news anymore, everyone so sure they
can discover the big event and be the first to report on it. Goethe
would be disgusted.
Borges recalls the
Chinese philosopher who argued that since the unicorn is a
mythological animal which none of us has ever seen, if one did come
our way we would have no means of recognizing it. I think Scollon's
book is struggling to identify the same unicorn a lot of others are
We all feel times
are changing and I like the way Scollon keeps coming at these changes
from different perspectives; but it really is too much to believe that
anyone is likely to do very well at predicting where it all leads us.
I think that
explains the atavistic streak in this set of essays (can I call them
that?) Unable to see how to go forward, Scollon takes us back again
and again to a few things we know for sure; they are as old as our
life on earth as humans; our food comes from the earth, our life
depends on other life, if we don't watch out for these eternal
verities, we'll be in serious trouble. That's what is most appealing
about the book for me.
Peter, I've started
out this way because I didn't want to leave any doubt in your mind
that I think you ought to publish this book, pretty much as it is,
warts and all. And now having said that I want to raise some questions
I had in reading it that I'd really enjoy talking to Scollon about.
They could be seen as criticisms of the book. I'd rather think of them
as extensions; ideas I've had in reading the three essays and in
thinking over what he's said there.
As you'll see, I
couldn't resist from time to time wending in and out of Scollon's
style, especially the style of Time and the Media. It started out as a normal review letter, but
then got so long I thought I'd do better to package it up separately
with this as a cover letter.
So there you have
it. Thanks for giving me the chance to review the book. I think it'll
do well for your press. By the way, my daughter wants to know if you
called your press ‘Bartleby’ because you'd really prefer not to
publish anything, or because you deal mostly in dead letters? Kids!
What follows now is
my review of the manuscript.
Makes a Book a Book?
I started in on this
review by seeing if I could reconstruct Scollon's thesis throughout
the three essays. I think it goes like this, starting with The
Problem of Power (this one by both Ron and Suzie Scollon):
Power and alienation
are both ways of talking about asymmetrically structured human
relationships Both of these concepts are artefacts of asymmetrical
modes of communication such as writing (and now printing and
electronic broadcasting) The solution to the problem of power posed by
to re-establish three fundamental relationships: our relationship to
the earth, our relationship to each other, and our relationship to the
In other words,
knowing one's past, one's place, and one's community are
non-power-seeking ways of resisting the unilateral exercise of power.
So the Scollons say in The
Problem of Power that we should add a fifth category to
Schmookler's four responses to the exercise of power. Schmookler says
our only responses. The Scollons add to these
Resistance and independence through learning the past, learning
place, enlarging the future, and cultivating relationship