When I was in college, I became aware of a popular publication called, The Family of Man. Between its covers were photographs from around the world, depicting how people in different countries, cultures and ages lived. No words accompanied the photographs and none were necessary. A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words, and each of those in The Family of Man could rightly be described as an essay, ones I “read” again and again until the pages fell lose and the covers tore.
The difference between the written word and a photograph, writes Paul Ford, is that words have edges. In book form, the story comes to an end on the final page. But photographs have no boundaries. “It’s up to the finder what to make of them.” (“Confessions of an Ephemeralist,” by Paul Ford, New Republic, December 2015, pg.5) In the debate between those who read and those who prefer to spend their time on social media, Ford tends to side with the latter. Trawling internet data bases “constitutes ‘reading’ for me.” (Ibid pg 4.) Doing so, he writes, allows him to participate in any culture’s past and present. Even old advertisements tell a story. Look at laundry day in the 1920s, the 1960s and the present. An entire history of lifestyles is on display.
By making himself a witness to change, Ford has learned in a visceral way that his own life is ephemeral. That lesson, he insists, isn’t as readily accessible through books as it is through pictures.
I love my books and if I had to chose, I’d side with readers. But, I agree with Ford, the internet is a visual world with which I couldn’t do without. Its lessons are more graphic than any that can be grasped by reading an encyclopedia. Pictures from the heartlands of America at the turn of the century show me that a man at 40 years is old. Not true for a man of 40 years today. Or compare women’s dresses from Victorian times to the 21st Century. What we see is a cavalcade of change as women sought their liberation. Radio ads tell us much about the past and present as well. Would a program like Amos and Andy survive today? (Click)
Ford is right. Trawling the internet offers a global perspective on the history of man, one more immediate to our understanding than a book. The judgments that follow, of course, are our own.