Regular readers (and even stray internet pilgrims) know that Dr. M. has composed a series of entries called What We Read in the Fifties, in which he's revisited books that were noteworthy or notorious during the days of his youth. It's been a rewarding exercise, at least for him. Some of the books have been canonical novels that were required reading in English class at Erasmus Hall High School, some have been pop best-sellers which his more earnest teachers would have scorned, and some have been cheap sensational paperbacks passed under the desk from hand to grimy pubescent hand.
In the years that have passed since I first read these books, rivers have changed course, glaciers have melted, and American society has altered almost beyond recognition -- and yet the books have remained exactly the same. Reading them has been an exercise in nostalgia and a test of memory, and also an unwelcome insight into the incalculable callowness of adolescence. And yet, Dr. Metablog has found readers -- or, at least, he thinks he has, for in May and in December, when high school students all over America, yea, even across the waters, write their assigned term papers on Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye, blague-traffic spikes, and the dissenting views offered in these essaylets are plagiarized and offered to a new generation of English teachers, who reward them with grades of D or F.
I fear, however, that my readers might have gathered an erroneous impression of 1950s Flatbushian youth -- that they might have been literate or intellectual. Let me clear my conscience and confess that for every hour that I spent reading books that had actual covers, I spent ten hours reading comic books and an equal measure with my ear to the radio. It was the comics that taught me how to read; I was well along in years before I came to realize that there were such things as lower-case letters and that there could be sentences that didn't end with exclamation points! In my neighborhood, super-heroes (Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman) were as common as squirrels or starlings. But radio -- radio serials-- affected us even more than the comics. Radio stimulated the imagination, took us to worlds far way, presented us with alternative realities. Members of my age-cohort will not forget the glories of radio: Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy, who trotted the globe in support of native ideals and Wheaties; Bobbie Benson, the youth who inherited the B-Bar-B ranch in the Big Bend country, and who, along with Tex, Windy, and Harka, triumphed daily over snakes, droughts, famines and outlaws; the Shadow, who had the power to "cloud men's minds so they cannot see him," and who taught us, every day, that "the weed of crime bears bitter fruit"; Sergeant Preston of the Northwest Mounted, who fought crime and bad guys in the Yukon with horse and dog ("Well, King, this case is closed"); and the Lone Ranger, who with the aid of Tonto and the "thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver" and with the marvelous voices of exotic Detroit's Fred Foy and Brace Beemer, created an enduring mythology of a spacious but vague and unlocatable west.
Radio gave scope to the listener's imagination. When television came along, and these programs were translated into a visual form, they were all inevitably diminished. It's no wonder that the great epics (Gilgamesh, the Odyssey and Iliad, Beowulf, the Icelandic sagas) are oral creations. The spoken word can cast spells that are beyond the capacity of visual forms. When it comes to heroes, a single word is worth a thousand pictures.
Radio prepared me for Shakespeare. It's a fact that when Londoners crossed the Thames to attend the Globe, they did not go to "see" a play; they went to "hear" a play. There's a world of difference between seeing and hearing. When we "see" a movie, 90% of the information comes to us through the eye. In a Shakespeare play, it's exactly the opposite -- 90%, or more, of the information comes to us by way of the ear -- which is why recordings of Shakespeare's plays can be so entirely successful and so true to the original intent. And because the plays are primarily oral, with their big speeches and complicated rhetorical patterning and brilliant displays of verbal acuity, they can also be larger-than-life -- and they can be heroic. Shakespeare's plays are closer to radio than they are to any other modern literary form. Those of us who grew up with radio bring to Shakespeare an intuitive understanding of oral forms that precedes television, film, and even precedes the theater itself -- especially decadent modern theater with its compulsive and distracting visual distortions.