Here’s an example of an imaginative way to open a serious discussion. This is the first paragraph of the chapter entitled “The Age of Show Business” in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, an intelligent and thoughtful commentary on modern culture, published originally in 1985 and still in print—because it’s still relevant—today.
A dedicated graduate student I know returned to his small apartment the night before a major examination only to discover that his solitary lamp was broken beyond repair. After a whiff of panic, he was able to restore both his equanimity and his chances for a satisfactory grade by turning on the television set, turning off the sound, and with his back to the set, using its light to read important passages on which he was to be tested. This is one use of television—as a source of illuminating the printed page.
The thesis of the chapter, the point that Postman will ultimately make, is that “television does not extend or amplify literate culture.” He wants to stand in opposition to the idea, common at the time, that television could promote literacy and distribute its benefits to ever more people. Now that’s a heady subject, and the author decided to begin with this interesting (and perhaps a little snarky?) anecdote before beginning his sustained argument against the vaunted benefits of television.
Manuals of writing regularly tell us to find an interesting way to introduce our subject, and a story of using a television screen to light the printed page of a book is certainly an interesting innovation. But how does this unusual use of a television set make for an interesting introduction to a chapter about television and literacy? Understanding the connection here can open up possibilities for us as we begin our own expository compositions and as we read the work of others more closely.
Language (and some would say the arts more largely) works by putting things together, seeing one thing, seeing another, and then finding how the two are related in some way. When we compose a sentence, we are putting together (the Latin componere means exactly that) words and the associations they carry. But composing, of course, is more than just a matter of randomly picking and placing this word and that to form sentences. The images we choose must have some characteristic in common that will open us onto new meaning. When you bring the reader into another world, as Postman does here, you surprise them—and surprise is always interesting.
So in this opening anecdote, we have as principal images the words television, light, and printed page, and of these three, the word light is the common bond that bridges the other two, because a television emits the physical phenomenon of light, and the printed page, a book, can emit the light of knowledge. When Postman says, then, that the student used the light of the television only as a means to read, he is suggesting we think more deeply about the value of the mere light that television produces; it is, he is saying, only instrumental, and not the real light of knowledge that will enlighten us: we think the light of television is the light of knowledge, but it is not.
In reflecting imaginatively on the meaning of light, Postman defeats our expectation of the way something is commonly used, and thus turns our attention away from the object that everyone is saying is valuable, television, and directs it to what more and more people, apparently, believe is of diminishing value, the book. And that is right where he wants our attention to be, as he is about to launch into an extended argument in favor of reading, not watching.
To look so closely at the images we are reading or writing is to see different levels of reference. It seems to be intrinsically interesting to all of us as human beings to see a point of connection in our experience, to find in common things an unsuspected meaning that will transpose our experience into another register. And when we find such connections, the world we encounter in language becomes richer, more intricate—and more interesting.