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Editor’s Choice: Age of the Image by Stephen Apkon

The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens by Stephen Apkon, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 263 pages ($26). The title of Stephen Apkon’s book indicates something that’s been axiomatic for many decades now – that true literacy could no longer be confined to those who merely read words on a page (and, in its higher evolution, know their Pushkin from their Lermontov or their Matthew Lewis from their William Beckford). Visual literacy long ago came to mean those who knew their grammar of film, those who were so immersed in visual storytelling and image-making that visual techniques and styles were as second-nature as those of great prose. You also had to know, then, your John Ford from your Howard Hawks, your Ernst Lubitsch from your Billy Wilder and your Luchino Visconti from your Michelangelo Antonioni.

Apkon’s book comes with a bit of finger-wagging right in its chilly epigraph from Future Shocker Alvin Toffler “(in the future) illiteracy will not be defined by those who cannot read or write, but by those who cannot learn and relearn.” As Martin Scorsese says in his introduction to Apkon, in our day “moving images are absolutely everywhere – movies, TV, video games, YouTube, streaming services, taxicabs, subway ads, electronic billboards and on and on … The need for visual literacy has only become more urgent. In fact, it has become necessary … Apkon starts with the cave paintings and takes us all the way to YouTube and beyond by way of Gutenberg and Edison and Hitchcock and in so doing he helps us to clearly understand the continuity between word and image as opposed to the divide.”

Apkon’s book is both extremely personal and pointedly instructional. It is a solid and basic college-level survey course between covers, with all manner of choice detours – interviews with YouTube’s Freddie Wong, say, and Chris Anderson, “curator of the visionary TED conferences” online explaining “crowd-accented innovation,” the “collective shaping of what we believe and read and watch [that] is going to be done more and more by nonprofessionals with a VISUAL message.”

Welcome to the 21st century.

– Jeff Simon