By Mitchell Stephens. Oxford Univ. Press. 259 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Marty Linsky

The Wilson Quarterly

(another review of this book)

(to learn more about this book)

Teenage son and father meet in the hall. Son has been watching ESPN. Father has been reading the New York Times sports section and Sports Illustrated. Father knows who's leading the league in hitting. Son understands the themes of the season.

Wife is a visual type, too. Assistant managing editor in charge of the look of a leading newsmagazine. Spends workday creating graphic illustrations and retouching photos to communicate truth.

Father struggles for weeks to get through Don DeLillo's Underworld. Puts it down. Too many stories. Too many characters. Too many scenes chock-a-block, one after the other.

Family in front of the TV. Son has the remote. No attention span. Changes from station to station. Drives father crazy. By the time he begins to get into whatever is on, commercial or event or boring political speech, son switches stations. Wife grabs the remote. Settles on MTV. Son leaves to go play video game.

Father is asked to review Mitchell Stephens's new book, the rise of the image, the fall of the word. Begins to understand.

The temptation is to glorify the past, particularly the past that not only produced us but honored the skills and values that we call our own. But the good old days were usually not as good as we remember them, and the bad new days often trouble us simply because they challenge assumptions that we hold dear. Just as we condemn video as an inadequate and banal communications medium, the elite chattering classes of yore trashed each of its predecessors: writing, printing, photographs, and radio.

The rise of the image, the fall of the word is a fascinating, counterintuitive tour de force, driven by Stephens's belief that we are at the beginning of a communications transformation as fundamental as the introduction of writing 3,500 years ago. In the view of the author, a journalism professor at New York University, the creators of MTV were on to something that ultimately will lead to new truths, new understanding, and levels of communication that we cannot yet grasp.

Stephens first describes how new communications media get introduced into society. Initially, people use the new medium to imitate the old. Early television, for example, simply put existing media--theater, radio, and film--in front of the screen. Stephens next lays out the qualities of what he believes will be the next dominant communications form: moving (usually very quickly moving) images. Finally, he speculates on what tomorrow's "new video" might actually look like: fast, densely paced, asymmetric, surrealistic, full of computer-generated graphics and doctored photos, organized more like music than prose. To make his argument, Stephens draws upon a wide range of sources from history, pop culture, film, literature, and advertising, as well as his experience as a teacher and father.

The picture is at once optimistic and disconcerting. It's upsetting to be told that the world that produced you was neither the highest stage of human achievement nor the last, that the truisms by which you have lived are being superseded, and that your kids, even the little ones, are heading into intellectual frontiers that are beyond your willingness, if not your capacity, to absorb. Stephens has created a different way of thinking about the sands that we feel shifting so quickly under our feet. If he's right, this book review may be a dying art form about a dying art form--and we have reason to be hopeful about what will take their place.