Notebook: The Golden Age of Piracy

Gladys Hulette, New York Tribune, 22 October 1916

"Bootylicious," my review of Peter T. Leeson's The Invisible Hook, appears in the 7 September 2009 issue of the New Yorker.

As in the past, I'd like to offer on this blog some description of the sources that were useful to me in writing the article. The customary caveat: this post won't make much sense if you haven't yet read the article in question first. My first thanks, as usual, are for the book under review, Leeson's Invisible Hook, which is dapper and brisk besides being very well researched.

The best descriptions of pirates come from people taken captive by them. Captain William Snelgrave, whom I use to start my article, tells his story in A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea, and the Slave-Trade, which, though published in 1734, is mysteriously unavailable in Google Books. The only physical copy I can find for sale is a 1971 reprint—for $430. Talk about piracy! Within the scholarly world, Snelgrave's narrative is also famous for his observations of Africa and of slave-trading, which he defends. Another captive, Captain George Roberts, describes having been seized near the Cape Verde Islands in 1722 in The Four Years' Voyages of Capt. George Roberts. "You Dog! You Son of a Bitch! you Speckled-Shirt Dog!" one of his captors curses him. Asked who he thinks his captors are, Roberts submissively answers that "I believed they were Gentlemen of Fortune belonging to the Sea," only to be told off once more: "You lie by God, we are Pirates, by God." Roberts tells a good yarn, so good that some have wondered whether it might be fiction, but I think it's too good for that. When, for example, one of the pirates maroons Roberts on the high seas in a boat with no sail and no provisions, the pirate bestows on Roberts, in parting, a musket with a small amount of powder, calling it a special gift. The gift puzzles Roberts. In fact, though Roberts never figures it out, a loaded gun was traditionally given by one pirate to another when he marooned him—so the marooned man could shoot himself instead of starving to death slowly. It would take a subtle novelist to resist writing the scene where it dawns on Roberts what the musket is for; it seems more likely to me that Roberts's experience and ignorance were both genuine.

Two more captives tell their stories in the General History of the Pyrates, a book I'll describe in a moment. One of them, Captain Evans of the Greyhound, is quoted in my article saying he prefers to keep his hand and lose his gold. At the moment when another captive, Captain Macrae, is afraid that he's going to lose his life, "a Fellow with a terrible Pair of Whiskers, and a wooden leg, being stuck round with Pistols, like the Man in the Almanack with Darts, comes swearing and vapouring upon the Quarter-Deck." To Macrae's surprise, the blustering fellow acclaims him "an honest Fellow," and the testimony saves him. (After reading this story, I wasted a fair amount of time trying to figure out who "the Man in the Almanack with Darts" was, and here's the answer, courtesy of Notes and Queries, 13 June 1908: "The reference . . . is evidently an allusion to the woodcuts in the ephemerides of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries illustrating the supposed effects of the planets, &c., on the diseases in various parts of man's body. . . . The arrows are merely lines pointing to the head, heart, breast, legs, feet, &c., of a small naked figure."

The Pirates' Ruse (detail), February 1896: Male pirates, dressed as ladies and gentlemen, lure a merchant ship closer, while their mates hide with their weapons below the bulwarks Several buccaneers left narratives. The most famous is The Buccaneers of America (first English edition, 1684) by A. O. Exquemelin, a Frenchman who served with Henry Morgan and later became a surgeon in Holland. Exquemelin has some nice observations of life in the New World—flamingo meat and crocodile eggs are very tasty, he reports, and one of the few drawbacks of Caribbean life are these insects known as mosquitoes ("most vexing of all is the noise they make in one's ears")—but there's so much torture in his story that it's quite grim and grisly. I read Alexis Brown's translation, but there's an older translation available for download on Google Books. The Library of Congress offers an online display of the illustrations to the 1678 Dutch edition. Another buccaneer, Basil Ringrose, wrote an account of further depredations that picks up where Exquemelin left off, and it has often been reprinted as the second half of Exquemelin's book.

Pirates (as opposed to buccaneers) left few first-hand documents. The General History reprints a few fragments from what it claims was Blackbeard's diary: "rum all out:—our Company somewhat sober:—A damn’d Confusion amongst us!" And there is the occasional threatening letter, such as the one from Henry Every that I quote, which is reprinted in J. Franklin Jameson, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period (1923), a collection of letters, reports, and legal documents, glossed with very helpful footnotes. There is also the testimony that pirates gave in court, the amplest source of which may be the four volumes (well, two of the four volumes) of Joel H. Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age.

And then there's Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates (1724), which is droll and vivid. You want the version edited by Manuel Schonhorn, because it's the most meticulous, even though Schonhorn thought that "Charles Johnson" was a pseudonym for Daniel Defoe. In fact, Arne Bialuschewski has shown that it was almost certainly a pseudonym for the journalist Nathaniel Mist.

Between them, Exquemelin's Buccaneers and Johnson/Mist's General History are the source of almost all the great stories about pirates. Given the standards of historiography of their era, they're considered to be remarkably accurate. Still, they do contain instances of embroidery, including, in the case of Johnson/Mist, a long Voltairean (in style though maybe not spirit, depending on the level of irony you choose to read it at) fantasy about a pirate utopia in Madagascar called "Libertalia." Another problem: Johnson/Mist's book is a jumble, chronologically speaking. Only modern history will help you sort wheat from chaff. C. R. Pennell has written an excellent bibliographic essay about pirate scholarship, which appears at the start of his collection Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, which itself contains a broad sample of historical essays, including several on pirates other than the English-speaking ones. To speak very generally, pirate history comes in two sorts: those that describe piracy as a system, and those that describe it as a series of events. (I'm speaking crudely, of course; all do both, to some extent.) Leeson's book falls into the first category, as do such works as Christopher Hill's essay "Radical Pirates?" (1984) and Marcus Rediker's wonderful Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. (Rediker's pioneering effort on pirates was a chapter in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700 – 1750.) Villains of All Nations is lively and astute, and in many ways Rediker's Marxian analysis of pirates anticipates Leeson's. Rediker also seems to have read every pirate-related document ever created. Somewhat lighter in spirit, but also very responsible, is David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates, which overlays pirate sociology with a tour of the literature and film created out of pirate lore in later centuries.

As for books that offer a more narrative history of pirates, English-speaking pirates did so much dastardy that it's hard to fit the whole story between two covers. One book that manages to tell the full tale is Patrick Pringle's Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy (Norton, 1953), which covers it all—Elizabethan privateers, colonial-era buccaneers, and Enlightenment-age pirates. Pringle was a sedulous researcher, but new facts have come to light in the half-century since he wrote, so he can't always be relied on as a final authority. His felicitous style more than compensates, though; he's something of a wit. On the matter of pirate governance, he, too, anticipates Leeson's arguments:

Those seamen, mostly illiterate and uneducated, freed from moral and legal restraints, would to-day be regarded as unfit for self-government. . . . Where discipline is removed, self-discipline emerges in the most unlikely places. . . . It worked. Anarchism on a small scale usually does, if it is left in peace. Anarchism on a large scale has not yet been tried.

For in-depth and fully end-noted history, three relatively recent accounts are as riveting as adventure tales: Peter Earle's The Sack of Panamá: Captain Morgan and the Battle for the Caribbean (1981) describes the buccaneer Henry Morgan's opportunistic but (in English eyes) legal raids on Spanish territories in the 1660s and 1670s; Robert C. Ritchie's Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (1986) lucidly narrates Kidd's late-seventeenth-century plundering against a background of political intrigue between Whigs and Tories; and Colin Woodard's The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down (2007) tells the story of the last generation of Golden Age pirates, those of the early eighteenth century, including Blackbeard, Charles Vane, and Samuel Bellamy, and the role played in their demise by Bahamas governor Woodes Rogers.

A note on pirate sex: B. R. Burg argued in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (1983) that pirates practiced homosexuality more freely than their contemporaries. The circumstances do suggest that this might be likely, as do Bartholomew Roberts's pirate articles, which forbade the presence of any "boy or woman" on board. I'm reluctant to rule it out, knowing what one knows about the British Navy, the original employer of most pirates, and about the propensity of modern-day historians to sweep such matters under the rug. (In Under the Black Flag, for instance, Cordingly quotes Roberts's articles, including the diktat against "boy or woman," and then writes, "There is no mention in this code . . . of homosexuality." Argh, as the pirates say.) But there's not enough evidence to make any positive assertion. The ultimate source of a number of supposed accounts of pirate homosexuality is Louis Le Golif's Memoirs of a Buccaneer, widely suspected of being a twentieth-century fiction. When Le Golif's tales are excluded, very little evidence of pirate sodomy remains. Ringrose's narrative is the source of the anecdote in my article of the servant who claims to have been buggered by his buccaneer master. (Confusingly, the relevant passage does not appear in the reprint linked to above, but only in the original 1685 edition.) The servant confesses, however, just as his master is losing a power struggle with other buccaneers, so his confession might be true, might be part of a smear campaign, or might be both, but in any case it isn't a happy moment of love and liberation. Also intriguing is the testimony given in a court case involving a pirate named Powell, who told a sailor, "I wish you and I were both ashore here stark naked." Rediker reports the line as possibly containing an erotic charge, but when read in its original context (the line appears at vol. 3, page 186 of Baer's British Piracy in the Golden Age), it seems more likely that the statement was recalled in court as evidence of the extremity of Powell's wish to be off the pirate ship, not as evidence of sexual interest.

Pirates, you will not be surprised to hear, are all over the internet. In conclusion, as a representative sampling, here are American soldiers flying Jolly Roger in Afghanistan, a Victorian toy theater for rehearsing the adventures of Blackbeard in your pinafore at home, and an early episode of the exceedingly goofy "Auto-Tune the News" featuring both pirates and gay marriage.

Notebook: The Ludlow Massacre Revisited

Boardman Robinson, book jacket for Upton Sinclair's King Coal (1917, rpt. 1921) “There Was Blood,” my review-essay of two recent books about the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, appears in the New Yorker on 19 January 2009. What follows is a bibliography and supplementary online smorgasbord, which won’t make much sense until after you’ve read the article itself.

My first debt, as ever, is to the books under review, Thomas G. Andrews’s Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War and Scott Martelle’s Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, both excellent. Also in print and useful were Rick J. Clyne’s Coal People: Life in Southern Colorado’s Company Towns, 1890-1930, Ron Chernow’s Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and Elliott J. Gorn’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Marilynn S. Johnson’s Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents arrived too late for me to consult it when writing the article but we dipped into it while fact-checking. Among older sources, the most useful were Barron B. Beshoar’s Out of the Depths: The Story of John R. Lawson, a Labor Leader (1942), George Korson’s Coal Dust on the Fiddle (1943) for lore and songs, George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Guttridge’s The Great Coalfield War (1972), and Zeese Papanikolas’s Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre (1982).

Which should you read, if you want to know more about Ludlow? Martelle has the best day-by-day account of the conflict. Andrews has the most insight into the geological, economic, and sociological forces, and he gives the context of the preceding decades in more detail than any of the others. I think both deserve the highest marks in terms of their scholarship and their accuracy. Beshoar’s father was a doctor who treated the Ludlow strikers, and the strikers named a camp after him. As a result, Beshoar’s version of events is frankly partisan, and sometimes he veers into the propagandistic. His account is one of the liveliest, though, perhaps because he tapped oral sources not available to later writers (don’t be put off by the subtitle; his book is only nominally restricted to Lawson). As you would expect, McGovern and Guttridge are very good about the politics, which got quite complex, as the federal government was brought in against the state, and as various committees undertook to investigate the mine operators and interfere with one another’s investigations in the process. Papanikolas’s is a very nice piece of writing, though a somewhat melancholy one, and he has a novelist’s eye for detail. When Papanikolas tracks down Tikas’s grave, for example, the manager of the cemetery recalls for him how he adopted a runaway St. Bernard on the day of the massacre. Later, reading testimony contemporary with the massacre, Papanikolas finds mention of a St. Bernard loose in the desolate camp carrying a burning timber in its mouth, and he wonders if he’s found the historical trace of the cemetery manager’s animal. Papanikolas’s book is worth reading as much as an essay on the historical impulse as for its account of Ludlow (like Beshoar’s, his book isn’t limited by its apparent focus on a single individual). Though I name-check King Coal in my article, it isn’t Upton Sinclair’s best novel. If you’re hell-bent on reading Sinclair, which I’m not sure you should be, read Oil! instead (and notice, when you do, that in the book, corporate power and false religiosity are hand-in-glove allies—not opponents, as in the movie—and that they are united to suppress the revolutionary force of labor, which the movie knows not of).

The Ludlow massacre and the Great Coalfield War are well documented online. The best compilation is the Colorado Coal Field War Project, produced by the University of Denver, which has a historical outline, a bibliography, photos, a historical map that links to some of the photos, and information about an archaeological exploration of the site. The Holt Labor Library of San Francisco, meanwhile, also offers a Ludlow bibliography, comprised of print and online sources. The Bessemer Historical Society, custodian of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company’s archives and legacy, has published a brief history of the company and sells several texts about mining and CFI in its store, including a reprint of Camp & Plant, the weekly run by CFI’s Sociological Department.

The Sort of Houses the Mexican Employes Built for Themselves at Segundo, Camp and Plant 2.15 (11 October 1902) The Sort of Houses that the Company Builds for Them, Camp and Plant 2.15 (11 October 1902) As it happens, Google Books has digitized a stray volume from Camp & Plant, so you can examine for yourself the paternalism of CFI’s early years, as instanced in such photos as these of worker-made adobe homes (left) and the factory-made wood-and-concrete structures that replaced them (right). Here, by the way, is what the factory owners thought of workers who failed to subscribe to their periodical. (Andrews reports that one miner quipped that the mule workforce “was unionized before some of us.”)

Most of the surviving photographs of the Ludlow massacre were taken by Louis R. Dold, whom Papanikolas, amazingly enough, tracked down and interviewed for his book. (Elsewhere Dold’s first name is sometimes spelled “Lewis” and his last name “Dodd.”) Dold’s Ludlow photographs, and those taken by several others, are available for browsing in the Denver Public Library’s Western History collection. Here, for example, is an evocative one of the pit below Tent No. 58, which Dold has annotated as follows: “Hole Where Bodies of 11 Women and 2 Children Were Recovered From After Fire at Ludlow Coloney [sic].” You can also see strikers’ children playing in the snow with what is either an effigy or a scarecrow; the chaos in Trinidad when a panicked National Guard general ordered his cavalry to “ride down” a group of women protestors; the Death Special; strikers playing baseball; numerous shots of the Ludlow camp before and after it was razed; and an image of Tikas’s corpse, mislabeled in the Denver Public Library’s files as being that of another striker (the indefatigable Papanikolas writes of having come across the same misidentification when he visited the archives in person).

Coal miner's wife (detail), Denver Public Library Western History Collection, X-60426 Mary Thomas O'Neal, 1974 More cheerfully, there’s also a 1914 photo of a “coal miner’s wife”, whom I believe may be Mary Thomas O’Neal. I’m guessing based on the resemblance between the photos reproduced here. At left is a detail from the Denver Public Library’s photo (call number X-60426). At right is an image of Mary Thomas O’Neal that pops up when you play an oral-history interview with her conducted in 1974 and available online through the Virtual Aural/Oral History Archive at California State University Long Beach. Mary Thomas O’Neal is one of the few Ludlow survivors who left a first-person account, published as Those Damn Foreigners in 1971. As Martelle observes in an end note, her memoir “differs radically” from the testimony she gave shortly after the massacre; Papanikolas had similar doubts about the reliability of her memory when he interviewed her; and the oral history comes with the caveat that she herself was aware that her memory was deteriorating. But there’s no doubt that she was a coal miner’s wife (though she was separated from her husband during the strike); that she was active in the union cause, lending her talent as a singer to its recruiting parties; and that she was in Ludlow camp with her children the day of the massacre. You can hear her, in her eighties, singing the union song “We’re Coming, Colorado,” if you click through to section 1a, segment 11, of the Virtual Aural/Oral History Archive interview with her. (She starts singing roughly at the 1:50 mark.)

Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Cross-posted from the University of Michigan Press blog.

"Twilight of the Books," an essay of mine published in The New Yorker on 24 December 2007, has been honored by inclusion in The Best of Technology Writing 2008, edited by Clive Thompson. When The New Yorker published my essay, I posted on my blog a series of mini-bibliographies, for anyone who wanted to dig into the research behind my article and try to answer for themselves whether television impaired intellect or whether literary was declining (here's an index/overview to all these research posts). A month or so ago, when the University of Michigan Press, the publisher of The Best of Technology Writing 2008, invited me to write about my essay for their blog, I was afraid I didn't have any more to say. Also, alas, I was under deadline. But I have a breather now, and looking over my year-old notes, I realize that there were a couple of categories of research that I never posted about at the time, because the topics didn't happen to make it into my article's final draft.

This research tried to answer the questions, Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world? and Do video games impair academic performance? I still think the questions are very interesting, though I must now offer my summaries with the caveat that they are somewhat dated. In fact, I know of some very interesting research recently published on the first question, some of which you can read about on the blog On Fiction. I'm afraid I haven't kept up with video games as closely, but I'm sure there's more research on them, too. I hope there is, at any rate, because when I looked, I found very little. (By research, in all cases, I meant peer-reviewed studies based on experimental or survey data, and not popular treatments.)

A few words of introduction. The historian Lynn Hunt has suggested in her book Inventing Human Rights that in the eighteenth century, the novel helped to change Europe's mind about torture by encouraging people to imagine suffering from the inside. As if in corroboration, some of the research summarized below suggests that the brain responds less sympathetically when it is perceives violence through electronic media. As you'll see, however, there is some ambiguity in the evidence, and the field is highly contested.

1. Does exposure to violence on television or in video games lead to aggressive behavior in the real world?

  • In a summary of pre-2006 research, John P. Murray pointed to experiments in the 1960s by Albert Bandura, showing that children tend to mimic violent behavior they have just seen on screen and to a number of studies in the early 1970s that found correlations between watching violence and participating in aggressive behavior or showing an increased willingness to harm others. In 1982, a panel commissioned by the Surgeon General to survey existing research asserted that "violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior," and in 1992, a similar panel commissioned by the American Psychological Association reported "clear evidence that television violence can cause aggressive behavior." One mechanism may be through television's ability to convince people that the world is dangerous and cruel, in what is known as the "mean world syndrome." Murray claims that a twenty-two-year longitudinal study in Columbia County, New York, run by Huesmann and Eron, which was begun under the auspices of the Surgeon General's office, has linked boys' exposure to television violence at age eight to aggressive and antisocial behavior at age eighteen and to involvement in violent crime by age thirty; in fact, a 1972 study by Huesmann et al. did link boys' exposure at eight to aggressive behavior at eighteen, but the 1984 study cited by Murray linked violent crime at age thirty to aggressive behavior at age eight and said nothing about exposure to televised violence. In an unrelated study, when television was introduced in Canada, children's levels of aggression increased. [John P. Murray, "TV Violence: Research and Controversy," Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007. L. Rowell Huesmann, Leonard D. Eron, Monroe M. Lefkowitz, and Leopold O. Walder, "Stability of Aggression Over Time and Generations," Developmental Psychology 1984. For a synopsis of Huesmann's 1972 study, see Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006, p. 208.]
  • A longitudinal study of 450 Chicago-area children was begun in 1977 when the children were between six and eight years old, and continued in 1992-1995, when they were between twenty-one and twenty-three years old. As children, the subjects were asked about their favorite television programs, whether they identified with the characters, and how true-to-life they thought the shows were. Fifteen years later, it emerged that watching violent shows, identifying with aggressive characters of the same sex, and believing that the shows were realistic correlated with adult aggression, including physical aggression. The effect was present even after controlling for such factors as initial childhood aggression, intellectual capacity, socioeconomic status, and parents' level of emotional support. (Note that in the opinion of the researchers, the Six Million Dollar Man was considered a "very violent" show, and that the heroine of the Bionic Woman was considered an aggressive character.) [L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard D. Eron, "Longitudinal Relations between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood, 1977-1992," Developmental Psychology, 2003. Cf. Kirsh , p. 209.]
  • In a 2006 textbook about the relation between media violence and aggressive behavior, author Steven J. Kirsh notes that a 1994 meta-analysis of the link between television violence and aggression estimated the size of the effect to be r = .31. "The effect sizes for media violence and aggression are stronger than the effect sizes for condom use and sexually transmitted HIV, passive smoking and lung cancer at work, exposure to lead and IQ scores in children, nicotine patch and smoking cessation, and calcium intake and bone mass," Kirsh wrote. A 2004 meta-analysis found that the correlation between video game violence and aggressive behavior was r = .26. To put the effect sizes in perspective, Kirsh notes that they are greater than the link between testosterone levels and aggression, but weaker than the link between having antisocial peers and delinquency. In surveying the research on video games, Kirsh makes the point that there is little research as yet, and that most of it was done in what he calls the "Atari age," when the games were fairly innocuous; almost no one has experimentally tested the effects on children and teens of the new-generation, highly realistic and gory first-person shooter games. [Steven J. Kirsh, Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research, Sage Publications, 2006.]
  • In a 2007 summary of research, three scientists asserted that there was "unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts," and noted that the link between television violence and aggression had been proved by studies in both the laboratory and the field, and by both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. Video games were not as well documented, but in the opinion of the scientists, the preliminary evidence suggested that their effect would be similar. Playing violent video games has been shown to increase physiological arousal. Measurements of skin conductance and heart rate show that people have less of an aversion to images of real violence, if they have previously been exposed to violent television or violent video games. Measurements of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fRMI) allow researchers to look with new precision at the magnitude of brain processes that occur at particular times and at the activation of specific regions of the brain. A 2006 study by Bartholow et al., for example, showed that exposure to violent video games reduces aversion to scenes of real violence, as measured by a blip of voltage that typically occurs 300 milliseconds after sight of a gory image. A 2006 study by Murray et al. (see below) showed that violent scenes of television activated parts of the brain associated with emotion, memory, and motor activity. Yet another 2006 study, by Weber et al., showed that while players were engaged in violence during a video game, a brain region associated with emotional processing was suppressed, and one associated with cognitive processing was aroused, perhaps in order to reduce empathy and thereby improve game performance. In a 2005 study by Matthews et al., chronic adolescent players of violent video games scored the same as adolescents with disruptive behavior disorders on a test designed to assess a brain region responsible for inhibition and error correction. Attempting to explain the results of the various studies under review, the authors write: "Initial results suggest that, although video-game players are aware that they are engaging in fictitious actions, preconscious neural mechanisms might not differentiate fantasy from reality." [Nicholas L. Carnagey, Craig A. Anderson, and Bruce D. Bartholow, "Media Violence and Social Neuroscience," Currents Directions in Psychological Science, 2007.]
  • While a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) device monitored their brain activity, eight children watched a video montage that included boxing scenes from Rocky IV and part of a National Geographic animal program for children, among other clips. The violent scenes activated many brain regions that the nonviolent scenes did not, mostly in the right hemisphere. These regions have been associated by other researchers with emotion, attention and arousal, detection of threat, episodic memory, and fight or flight response. The authors of the study speculate that "though the child may not be aware of the threat posed by TV violence at a conscious level . . . a more primitive system within his or her brain (amygdala, pulvinar) may not discriminate between real violence and entertainment fictional violence." In the activation of regions associated with long-term memory, the researchers saw a suggestion that the television violence might have long-term effects on the viewer. [John P. Murray, etal. "Children's Brain Activations While Viewing Televised Violence Revealed by fMRI," Media Psychology, 2006.]
  • In a 2005 study, 213 video-game novices with an average age of twenty-eight were divided into two groups, and one group spent a month playing an average of 56 hours of a violent multi-player fantasy role-playing video game. Participants completed questionnaires to assess their aggression-related beliefs before and after the test month, and were asked before and after whether they had argued with a friend and whether they had argued with a romantic partner. The data showed no significant correlation between hours of game play and the measures of aggression, once the results were controlled for age, gender, and pre-test aggression scores. The authors note that there might be an effect too small for their study to detect, and that adults might be less sensitive to the exposure than children or adolescents. [Dmitri Williams and Marko Skoric, "Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game," Communication Monographs, June 2005. Andrea Lynn, "No Strong Link Seen Between Violent Video Games and Aggression," News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 9 August 2005.]
  • A 2007 book presented three studies of video-game violence's effect on school-age children. In the first study, 161 nine- to twelve-year-olds and 354 college students were asked to play one of several video games—either a nonviolent game, a violent game with a happy and cartoonish presentation, or a violent game with a gory presentation—and then to play a second game, during which they were told they could punish other player with blasts of noise (the blasts were not, in fact, delivered). Those who played violent games, whether cartoonish or gory, were more likely to administer punishments during the second game; playing violent games at home also raised the likelihood of punishing others. Children and college students behaved similarly. In the second study, 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more often the students reported playing violent video games, the more likely they were to have hostile personalities, to believe that violence was normal, and to behave aggressively, and the less likely they were to feel forgiving toward others. The correlation between game playing and violent behavior held even when the researchers controlled for gender and aggressive beliefs and attitudes. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In the third study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, about their exposure to violent media, beliefs about the world, and whether they had been in fights. Students were asked to rate one another's sociability and aggressiveness, and teachers were asked to comment on these traits and on academic performance. In just five months, children who played more video games darkened in their outlook on the world, and peers and teachers noticed that they became more aggressive and less amiable. The effect was independent of gender and of the children's level of aggression at the first measurement. Screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too; they only became more aggressive, however, when the content they saw during the screen time was violent. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

2. Do video games impair academic performance?

  • In a 2004 survey of 2,032 school-age children, there were statistically significant differences in print and video-game use between students earning As and Bs and those earning Cs and below. On average, A-B students had read for pleasure 46 minutes and played video games for 48 minutes the previous day; C-and-below students had read for pleasure 29 minutes and played video games for 1 hour 9 minutes. Television watching seemed constant between the groups. [Donald F. Roberts, Ulla G. Foehr, and Victoria Rideout, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-Olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 2005, page 47.]
  • A 2007 book presented results of a study in which 189 high school students were given questionnaires designed to assess their media usage and personality. The more time that students spent in front of screens (whether televisions or video games), the lower their grades. In a related and similar study, 430 elementary school children were surveyed twice, at a five-month interval, and screen time impaired the academic performance of these students, too. [Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy, Oxford University Press, 2007.]

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here's a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article "Twilight of the Books":

Notebook: "Twilight of the Books" (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER's Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

Notebook: “Move Closer, Please”

Belle, July 1926, 175th St., New York City

Child with French bulldog

My review of “The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson,” a photo exhibit with a catalog, is in the 1 May 2008 issue of New York Review of Books (online subscription required). Since the article does have footnotes, I don’t need to annotate my sources here, so I thought instead I would post a few snapshots from my own collection, and then throw in a few motley links.

The snaps of “Belle” (left), a child with a French bulldog (right), and an Edwardian picnic (below) are anonymous. I purchased them in Brooklyn sometime in the last half dozen years. I’m afraid I don’t remember where. I find it very calming to imagine attending a picnic with fruit and thermoses anchoring the tablecloth. In white tie, of course.

Edwardian picnic

The medical student dancing with the skeleton (below) is my maternal grandfather. As you can see, a complicated man.

My grandfather and a skeleton


And this fellow (left) grew up to be my boyfriend. Note the placid, almost beatific smile. Contrast it with the eerie human eye just barely visible, in a shadowy way, inside the fake eye of the bunny creature. Note, too, the fluffy, imprisoning hands of the bunny creature.

Now, as to links. Snapshots—or, to call them by their fancy mass-noun, vernacular photography—are very well suited to the Internet. You can lose yourself for days looking through all the virtual shoeboxes. Luc Sante’s great blog, Pinakothek, often features found photos. Another blog, Swapatorium, has photos retrieved from flea markets and junk shops. A number of collectors have put their finds online, including Nicholas Osborn at Square America and John and Teenuh Foster at Accidental Mysteries. If you decide to start collecting yourself, there are images for sale at the Found Photo and at Project B.

A number of people have sent scans of their old photos to NYU’s Collective Visions, along with prose-poetical annotations (it doesn’t look as if it’s been updated recently, though). When the Getty ran a snapshot exhibit several years ago, they hosted a similar volunteer, communal snapshot gallery on their website. Polanoid pools the Polaroids made and collected by the dying company’s aficionados, though not all the images are snapshots. And then of course there’s Flickr. Almost every historical archive with images has some vernacular photography in it, but at the risk of seeming arbitrary I’ll single out the Charles Van Schaick collection in Wisconsin Historical Society, which has such treasures as this cake, and the Charles Weever Cushman photograph collection at Indiana University, the bequest of an amateur whose snaps sometimes call to mind the great color photos of the FSA/OWI held by the Library of Congress (which aren’t snapshots, properly speaking, at all).

Is reading online worse than reading print?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Previously: Does internet use improve or impair academic performance? Does it decrease the amount of time spent reading? Today: Is it more efficient to learn by reading print, by reading online, or by watching video?

  • When surveyed, medical students and business school say that they prefer to print out reading materials rather than read them onscreen. But an experimental test of 114 Scandinavian doctors found no significant difference in comprehension and retention of a short article between those who read it on paper and those who read it online, despite the doctors’ overwhelming preference for reading on paper. [Carrie Spencer, “Research on Learners’ Preferences for Reading from a Printed Text or from a Computer Screen,” Journal of Distance Education, 2006. Linda A. Martin and Mark W. Platt, “Printing and Screen Reading in the Medical School Curriculum: Guttenberg vs. the Cathode Ray Tube,” {link to citation only} Behaviour & Information Technology 2001. Pal Gulbrandsen, Torben V. Schroeder, Josef Milerad, and Magne Nylenna, “Paper or Screen, Mother Tongue or English: Which Is Better? A Randomized Trial,” Journal of the American Medical Association 2002.]
  • In a 2007 study, 132 college students in Alabama were shown a PowerPoint slide presentation on the country of Mali in one of three formats: text only, text with audio commentary, and text with an audiovisual commentary. The commentary was by a presenter who read the material on the slides almost word for word. When quizzed about the presentation, those shown the version with audiovisual commentary scored significantly lower than those shown the text-only version. The scores of those shown the version with audio commentary fell in between. Those shown the text-only version were more likely to agree with the statement “The presentation was interesting,” and those shown the text with audiovisual commentary were more likely to agree with the statement “I did not learn anything from this presentation.” [Steven C. Rockwell and Loy A. Singleton, “The Effect of the Modality of Presentation of Streaming Multimedia on Information Acquisition,” {link to citation only} Media Psychology 2007.]
  • In a number of studies led by Barrie Gunter and Adrian Furnham in the late 1980s, adults and children proved better able to recall information conveyed to them in print than by audio or television, “even where exposure time is equated across viewers, listeners, or readers.” (In fact, equal exposure time gives an advantage to readers; not only can readers set their own pace, slowing down when they reach a difficult passage and speeding through an easy one, but readers are often able to read a transcript silently more than once in the time it takes for the same material to be performed or read aloud.) Gunter and Furnham proved that print was superior whether the subject matter was television news, party political broadcasts, television advertisements, or scientific information. A 2002 study, however, found that when children and adults were quizzed about a children’s news program that they had either watched or read in transcript, children had better recall when they watched, especially if they were not proficient readers; adult recall was the same for both modalities. [Adrian Furnham, Barrie Gunter, and Andrew Green, “Remembering Science: The Recall of Factual Information as a Function of the Presentation Mode,” {link to citation only} Applied Cognitive Psychology 1990. Adrian Furnham, Samantha de Siena, and Barrie Gunter, “Children’s and Adults’ Recall of Children’s News Stories in both Print and Audio-visual Presentation Modalities,” {link to citation only} Applied Cognitive Psychology 2002.]

The end! This is the last installment of an online annotated bibliography for my review-essay “Twilight of the Books”.

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?