The Book Club

Didn’t I Already Know This?

Dear Nell,

I’m glad that we’re reading this book together, because I need you to stop me if I’m being too much of a jaded old cow.

How could anyone argue with Todd Gitlin? Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives is an exhaustively researched, cogently argued, smoothly written discussion of how media pervades people’s everyday existence, from ads that now appear, apparently, above the urinals in men’s rooms; to TV channels, sprouting up like mushrooms in the damp; to new and exponentially expanding “technosurprises,” like “the screen hanging above an airplane seat, the car that receives e-mail and plays CD’s, the watch with Internet access, the digital movie camera that switches on and off at the command of a voice.”

Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at NYU who is so thoroughly steeped in media and culture that you wonder when, in fact, he finds time to write about them, discusses the social and economic origins of this hyper-trend. He discusses how television leads to apathy. He discusses how violent films inure people to violence. He discusses how, in today’s media-hungry world, the more you consume, the more you want, and how the more diversions you get, the more diversions you need. He discusses the trivialization of the news and the time-wasting ramifications of the Internet and how the sentences in today’s best-selling books are shorter and less punctuated than the sentences in best sellers from the past.

Gitlin cites experts you have heard of and experts you have not. Among the dizzying array of people whose thinking he refers to or whose work he alludes to or whose writing he quotes are, and these are just off the top of my head, Benjamin Franklin, Nietzsche, George Eliot, Proust, Emily Dickinson, Marx, Milan Kundera, Cervantes, Georg Simmel, and Edward Luttwak. That leaves out all the people who are influential in their various fields and who he also quotes, people like “the pioneer French speed theorist Paul Virilio” and “the political scientist Zaki Laidi.”

As far as I can tell, everything he says is perfectly true. There is no question that our lives are being overwhelmed by the torrent of images and sounds wafting around out there. I, too, blew out my ears from cranking up my Walkman in my 20’s, so that now I have to turn up the car radio several notches higher than my husband, who came from a pre-Walkman era. I, too, am concerned about people’s need for diversion, about ever-shorter attention spans, about how I can spend a whole morning surfing the Internet in search of gossip items from places like Jim Romenesko’s hall-of-mirrors Media News, so that noon comes along and I have not done a single useful thing, not even opened the mail, and I feel slow and bloated, like an overwatered sponge.

My point being, didn’t I already know this? Isn’t Gitlin just slinging together, however elegantly, a whole bunch of stuff that people have been reading about, thinking about, and discussing for years? And while we’re at it: It was hard, in reading a book that deals in part with the media’s unhealthy obsession with itself, not to feel that Media Unlimited, just by existing at all, merely adds to the problem.

But I’d be very pleased to hear another view.

All best,