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.)


Jimmy Carter, Dedication of White House solar panels, June 1979

My essay-review “Good at Being Gods,” about Buckminster Fuller and the alternative energy movement of the 1970s, is published in the 18 December 2008 issue of the London Review of Books. It begins thus:

In the recent Pixar movie Wall-E there is a conflict between two different visions of technology. From one angle, technology appears to be humanity’s overlord: the movie imagines that in the future a megacorporation called Buy N Large will so exhaust and pollute the planet that it will have to whisk its customers away on a luxury outer-space cruise ship for their own protection. From another angle, technology appears to be the only thing capable of saving humanity’s soul. Wall-E, a scrappy, pint-sized robot left behind to tidy up Earth, scavenges for mementos of human culture, finds evidence of resurgent plant life and falls in love. The two visions are inconsistent but inextricable: Wall-E is himself a Buy N Large product.

A similar ambivalence colours the reputation of the 20th-century designer Buckminster Fuller. You might say that Fuller aspired to engineer a post-apocalypse outer-space cruise ship but in the end managed only to get himself adopted as technology’s mascot. . . .

The article is available online, but you have to subscribe or buy an electronic copy to read it. (I encourage you to, because ultimately that’s how I find the money to buy my daily allotment of toast and peanut butter.)

The file folder containing my notes for this review is titled “Utopian post-oil,” because when I started thinking about the issues, it seemed to me that a lot of the utopian alternative-energy notions of the 1970s were returning to haunt (or inspire) us today. The review focuses on K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller’s Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, because much of the 1970s movement crystallized around Fuller, and the Whitney Museum show and Yale University Press exhibition catalog provided an opportunity. But I also take account of Andrew G. Kirk’s Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism (University Press of Kansas, 2007), an informative book on an aspect of technological and social history that hasn’t been much chronicled; Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), an analysis and manifesto that seems to have been taken to heart by the Obama campaign, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly; and Giovanna Borasi and Mirko Zardini’s Sorry, Out of Gas: Architecture’s Response to the 1973 Oil Crisis (Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2007), a sort of visual encyclopedia of the 1970s alternative-energy movement and as a book an object of great charm. The “Sorry, Out of Gas” website is also well worth a visit. I also tapped the following for more information:

As close students of my work, if there are any, will have noticed, this is part of an ongoing obsession about the history of energy. Or anyway, a trilogy, comprised of my recent New York Times Book Review piece on horses as a nineteenth-century energy supply, this one for the LRB on windmills and solar power, and another forthcoming in the New Yorker.

Happily for those who disagree with my skepticism about do-it-yourself environmentalism, the website Treehugger recently released a buying guide to “Hot Home Wind Turbines You Can Actually Buy.” (Hot as in stylin’.) And for those in search of more Fulleriana, here are links to Stanford University’s R. Buckminster Fuller Archive, which features an entertaining slide show; a sort of interactive information tree of Fuller’s ideas called the Fuller Map; and for explications of the Fuller terminology that flummoxed me, the R. Buckminster Fuller FAQ.

Miles per oat

What Happened on 23rd Street, NYC, 1901

“A World of a Different Color,” my review of Ann Norton Greene’s Horses at Work: Harnessing Power in Industrial America, appears in the 30 November 2008 issue of the New York Times Book Review. Jennifer Schuessler, my editor, has also posted to Paper Cuts, the NYTBR blog, about the uncanny parallels between anti-car diatribes today and anti-horse diatribes a century ago, as reported by Greene. Another tidbit from Greene’s book that might be of interest to Streetsblog readers: it was late-nineteenth-century bicycle culture that paved the way, as it were, for the displacement of horse by automobile, “by advocating an increased role for the state and national government in what had been the largely local responsibility for road funding and road building” (p. 259).

Diatribes, of course, need not be fact-based, whether they be anti-car or anti-horse. Were horses really as dangerous as cars? In his recent treatise Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt notes in passing that

in the New York of 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week (a bit higher than today’s rate of traffic fatalities, although there were far fewer people and far fewer vehicles). (p. 9)

Fearful if true! While reading Greene’s Horses at Work for my review (as well as a book on the same topic, The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century by Clay McShane and Joel A. Tarr), I was on the lookout for evidence to confirm or refute Vanderbilt’s statistics, which he sources to a 1992 book titled Ways of the World: A History of the World’s Roads and the Vehicles That Used Them.

As it happens, McShane and Tarr agree with Vanderbilt that horse-drawn vehicles were dangerous, writing that “Per vehicle, nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles caused more accidents than motor vehicles would later, an appalling accident toll, at least in New York City” (p. 54). Not all accidents are fatalities, though, so this isn’t complete vindication.* And it turns out that Greene disagrees with Vanderbilt. She writes:

Few accident statistics predate the earliest twentieth century, and much evidence is anecdotal. . . . The cited dangers of horse-driven traffic must be understood within the context of nineteenth-century traffic control, of which there was none. Cities did not institute systems of traffic police and mechanical signals until the twentieth century. . . . New York City gave right of way at intersections to north- and southbound vehicles, mandated signaling by drivers, forbade stopping and parking except in designated areas, and limited speeds to five miles per hour for business vehicles and eight miles per hour for passenger ones. Speed limits could not be enforced because there was no way to measure speed anyway. Since the streets were congested, speeding was rarely an issue. It is hard to imagine that horse-drawn vehicles traveling two to five miles per hour were dramatically more dangerous than heavy metal cars and trucks traveling ten to forty miles an hour.

So maybe horses are innocent after all. Clearly there is room for further research. If you’d like to see some nineteenth-century horse-drawn vehicles in action, the Library of Congress offers video of traffic in New York’s Herald Square in 1896, near New York’s Dewey Arch in 1899, and on South Spring Street, Los Angeles, in 1897. On the verge of the twentieth century, there’s “What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York,” in which, against a background of equine transport, a young woman has an adventure with a street grate that prefigures Marilyn Monroe (but with sturdier and more abundant undergarments). There are also two movies of traffic in New York’s Broadway in 1903, a very long film of San Francisco’s Market Street in 1905, and for good measure here’s some footage of the Place de l’Opéra in Paris in 1900. Alas, in none of this documentary footage are the horses wilding. In the absence of any death and dismemberment, I found myself noticing that New York City streets seemed much more expansive then that now. It took a moment for me to figure out why, but then it came to me: there wasn’t any curbside parking. You can pause a horse at the side of the street while you make a delivery, but you can’t leave it in harness unattended for any serious length of time. It’s a living animal. So here’s an easy proposal for returning spaciousness to New York’s streets: restrict parking to stables.

* UPDATE (Dec. 2): In a comment added below, author Clay McShane has written in to say that the accident statistics in his and Joel Tarr’s book are in fact for fatalities, not merely casualties, and that the major issues are kicking and biting.

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).