Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet

By William J. Bernstein

Grove Press | 2013 | 420 pages

Reviewed by Fred Beauford

william bernstein

An editor, please

When I first received this book, my immediate reaction was a big thank you to Grove Press for sending it to me. This is a subject I know well, having taught The History of the Mass Media for many years; and although I last taught the subject at Cal State Northridge in 2001, I knew that there was still that little voice in me that said who knows if I will be back in the classroom again, and just maybe this is a book I can recommend to my students, or even require it for the course.

Three quarters of the way through Masters of the Word I recognized that I could do neither, not that Bernstein didn’t give us a detailed account of the growth of the media, starting with the birth of writing, onward to the development of the internet.

Interwoven with the technical developments, from clay tablets, to papyrus, to paper, to harnessing the conductive power of electricity in the world we now live in, author Bernstein also gives us a detail history lesson on how rulers and elites over the centuries used this new ability to extend and preserve human thought, to oppress and control their subjects; that is, he so aptly points out, until enough people became proficient in whatever became the latest medium, to shake off the people who controlled them.

Bernstein points to the ancient Greeks as an example, who because they developed a large enough literate population, were able to invent democracy, where the concept of ordinary citizens, admittedly literate, had a say in the rules that governed their very existence.  (In south of the Sahara Africa at the same time, everyone in the village had a say; they just didn’t have a fancy name for it.)

Another example he uses is the impact of the Gutenberg Revolution. Writes Bernstein “…around  1500, we find that industrially produced paper and the printing press amplified the burgeoning literary revolution, and with it, the power of ordinary people to spread their opinions and influence. By the time Martin Luther arrived at the University of Wittenberg its library shelves already groaned with the fruit of the Gutenberg Revolution. It was not Luther the theologian who affected the Reformation, but rather Luther the publisher.”

Bernstein captures well all the key developments of the various mediums and tries to give us an understanding of how each had a profound impact on humanity. Here is where I have a problem with his book: Bernstein clearly has the scholarship nailed, and I was truly impressed by his vast knowledge. However, he does not have the narrative skills, the chops, if you will, or the ability to self-edit, as a Jared Diamond or Bill Bryson, the two writers his book jacket compares him with.

I grew weary of the endless history lessons that went on and on, when a few paragraphs would have just as easily made the same point. All I could think of is if this guy is putting me the sleep, and this is one of my favorite subjects, I could imagine what this book would do to my students.

It’s a shame that what could have been a great book was severely compromised, apparently, by not having a sharp-eyed editor that was not afraid, and more than willing to say enough.

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