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ParaliteraryThe Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America$
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Merve Emre

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226473833

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226474021.001.0001

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Sight Reading

Sight Reading

(p.134) Chapter Four Sight Reading

Merve Emre

University of Chicago Press

"We have all heard it said that one picture is worth a thousand words,” wrote Walter Ong, "Yet, if this statement is true, why does it have to be a saying?” The historical connection between photographic aesthetics and non-syntactical communications forms the backbone of this chapter, which shows how institutions of photojournalism helped Americans cultivate a practice of “sight reading”: using visual cues to activate a sense of ethnographic knowledge that was explicitly opposed to literary interpretation. A prime example is the National Geographic magazine, whose editors and photographers enjoyed intimate organizational and technological relationships with the military-scientific industry in the US. By arranging photographs and texts to simulate for readers the experience of virtual communication, the magazine’s sight reading practices offer a necessary context to understand the literary writings of spies-turned-editors, such as Beverley Bowie (Operation Bughouse), Ilia Tolstoy, and Curtis LeMay. They also reveal how more critical subscribers—Flannery O’Connor (The Displaced Person), Elizabeth Bishop (Questions of Travel), and Walter Abish (Alphabetical Africa)—crafted fiction that questioned the experience of sight as a source of cultural knowledge. For subscribers and spies alike, the imagination of knowing others is deeply bound to the practice of sight reading.

Keywords:   National Geographic, Flannery O'Connor, Elizabeth Bishop, Walter Abish, Beverley Bowie, OSS

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