The Magazine

The Paper Chase

Printing and human nature get acquainted.

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By LAWRENCE KLEPP
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

News, of course, invented the modern world as much as the modern world invented news. Finding out what was going on elsewhere in the world changed people’s minds about what was possible or tolerable. And if news didn’t change minds by itself, it could be given a partisan spin. By the late 17th century, London papers were Whig or Tory, and in France, the road to the French Revolution was paved with polemical newspapers.  

Other changes wrought by news were more subtle. The melodramatic early news pamphlets tended to interpret every natural disaster and lost battle in terms of God’s oblique will—in terms of portents, warnings, and punishments of sin. But matter-of-fact newspapers effectively reduced things to capricious natural causes and equally capricious human decisions: The South Sea Bubble in England wasn’t designed by a wrathful God to punish frenzied greed; it just looked that way. 

In general, Pettegree gets through this vast, multidirectional mass of early modern material lucidly and expertly, turning up all sorts of unexpected bits of information, though some of the scholarly territory he traverses can be as dense with indigestible facts as early newspapers themselves. And the book ends too soon, just as the 18th century gets going. I would have liked to know more about the lives and times and pay scales of those Grub Street hacks, what papers Samuel Johnson read with his copious consumption of tea, and the nascent celebrity culture of popular actresses and wayward aristocrats.  

But it leaves one with the reassuring thought that, in terms of our collective appetite for shocking news developments, nothing much has changed. A very large coterie of modern intellectuals attacked the shallowness of newspapers and the poisonous effects of reading them: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis, Nietzsche, Heidegger, et al. But even that wasn’t new. As Pettegree shows, angry clerics were denouncing newspaper reading as a sin in the 17th century. 

The delusion is that there was some Golden Age of serene, newsless authenticity, a time when people were too spiritually connected to community or nature to be interested in the transient, the faraway, the scandalous. This book reminds us that human beings in any age, like the residents of 1st-century Athens encountered by St. Paul, can’t wait “either to tell or to hear some new thing.” 

Lawrence Klepp is a writer in New York.