August 20, 2019

Learning How to Listen

“Can a book change the way we think? I don’t mean that in the sense of a reader’s opinion or ideology shifting—of course the right literary work can do that. But can a book rewire the brain itself, literally changing the way one particular mind perceives and interprets the world around it?. The most convincing argument that this is possible might be the way that William Shakespeare’s work helped change the boundaries of both psychology and the English language to a previously unimaginable extent. The second best argument might be John Berger.

Berger’s book Ways of Seeing has been altering its readers’ perceptions of media since its 1972 release—as both a television series and a book. Media literacy remains an ongoing concern around the globe; some governments have even launched programs to give their residents more tools with which to interpret and evaluate all that they encounter online, in publications, and on television.

Ways of Seeing (the book) opens with an introductory passage, letting the reader know what’s coming: seven essays, three of which consist entirely of images. “Our principled aim has been to start a process of questioning,” write Berger and his collaborators. (Before the title page, a note describes Ways of Seeing as “A book made by John Berger, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, Richard Hollis.” Berger’s name alone is on the spine and cover, and it was he who wrote the television version.) In a look back on Ways of Seeing published earlier this year, Vikki Bell and Yasmin Gunaratnam cited Berger’s “style of blending Marxist sensibility and art theory with attention to small gestures, scenes and personal stories.” Earlier this year, writer and theorist James Bridle wrote that “his landmark series showed how art revealed the social and political systems in which it was made.””

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