What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself.

 

In 1978, Harlan Ellison published a fine collection of his short stories, called Strange Wine, with an Introduction entitled, “Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself.” This was Harlan’s classic broadside against the watching of television.

I was reminded of him while reading a news story headlined: “Almost 40% of university students surveyed are addicted to their phones.” Harlan could have easily updated his Introduction against all of social media. (If you’d like to read the full version of the Introduction, go to Strange Wine on Amazon Kindle, click on the “Look inside” cover image, and scroll down.

Let me give you the highlights:

He begins by saying that it’s all about drinking strange wine, and that it will seem disjointed and will jump around like water on a griddle, but it all comes together, so please be patient.

He mentions a news story about an anchorwoman who committed suicide on camera, making a statement about television on television. (Echoes of the film Network.) Next, he recaps a talk with Dan Blocker of Bonanza about a fan who seemed not to understand that Lorne Greene was in fact not in reality his father.

Once during a college lecture, Harlan casually mentioned that he had actually thought up the words spoken by the Star Trek cast in the sole episode he had written. A young man jumped up in tears and screamed, “Liar!”

Harlan says that these stories about people who merge television and reality illustrate how television is a bad thing. And that he took stock of how much time he himself spent watching television, and it scared him.

In college students, he had noted a zombiatic response, manifesting primarily in the kinds of questions he was asked. Not about his lengthy body of written work, but rather, “What was it like to work on Star Trek?” and “Why did Tom Snyder keep cutting you off on the Tomorrow show?” And Harlan gets angry with them about how shallow and programmed television is making them. And they don’t like him for it.

Television, unlike books or old-time radio, “is systematically oriented toward stunning the imagination.”

For him, “A book is a participatory adventure. It involves a creative act at its inception and a creative act when its purpose is fulfilled. The writer dreams the dream and sets it down; the reader reinterprets the dream in personal terms, with personal vision, when he or she reads it. Each creates a world. The template is the book.”

After a couple of pages of detail, he concludes, “Quite clearly, if one but looks around to assess the irrefutable evidence of reality, books strengthen the dreaming facility, and television numbs it. Atrophy soon follows.”

Yes, and what does social media do to the imagination and ability to think complex thoughts? Even to us, who use it much more than we should?

A high school teacher told him three stories:

First, a 15-year-old student rejected reading books because they weren’t real. “Because it was your imagination, and your imagination isn’t real.” What was real? Television. Because you could see it.

Second, students missed an important school function one night because they stayed home to watch the drama Helter Skelter based on the Manson murder spree. The next day the teacher compared the movie as being not real compared to a living event that was real. Another student insisted that it was real, he had seen it.

Third, each class had a television set, mostly unused. When the teacher had trouble controlling the class, she would turn the set on with nothing but snow, and they would settle down.

After several pages of more stories, some horrific, Harlan comes to his conclusion, which should not be paraphrased, because it is perfectly written, and is best to end this meditation:

All this programs the death of reading.

And reading is the drinking of strange wine.

Like water on a hot griddle, I have bounced around, but the unification of the thesis is at hand.

Drinking strange wine pours strength into the imagination.

The dinosaurs had no strange wine. They had no imagination. They lived 130,000,000 years and vanished. Why? Because they had no imagination. Unlike human beings who have it and use it and build their future rather than merely passing through their lives as if they were spectators. Spectators watching television, one might say.

The saurians had no strange wine, no imagination, and they became extinct. And you don’t look so terrific yourself.

Published in Entertainment
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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Harlan Ellison heckled me at a book signing for closing the book to fast and almost smearing the ink

    • #1
  2. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Mark Alexander: The dinosaurs had no strange wine. They had no imagination. They lived 130,000,000 years and vanished. Why? Because they had no imagination.

    No opposable thumbs either.

    • #2
  3. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    I watched enough television in those early years to get exactly that sense of missing imagination that is always there with reading. I also used the comparison to radio. I can’t really evaluate the effect but I’ll bet it is significant.

    • #3
  4. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    I watched enough television in those early years to get exactly that sense of missing imagination that is always there with reading. I also used the comparison to radio. I can’t really evaluate the effect but I’ll bet it is significant.

    • #4
  5. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Subject header brought this to mind . . .


    On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness
    Arthur Guiterman

    The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
    Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    The grizzly bear whose potent hug
    Was feared by all, is now a rug.

    Great Caesar’s bust is on my shelf,
    And I don’t feel so well myself.

    • #5
  6. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    I watched enough television in those early years to get exactly that sense of missing imagination that is always there with reading. I also used the comparison to radio. I can’t really evaluate the effect but I’ll bet it is significant.

    The thing I’ve always noted about television, film (or other mediums such as podcasts), is that the information comes at you at a steady rate and in linear fashion, and there’s not any time to pause and process the information. When you read something you can stop, think, back up, reread, jump back a page if necessary, and it’s not really linear at all. People read and process at different rates, and linear presentation of information doesn’t account for that.

    I suspect that the more we shift to receiving information in this linear fashion, the less that is actually learned. 

    Linear is fine for entertainment. Not necessarily for information.

    • #6
  7. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    See my related post To Disappear in Dreams, which was sparked by an article suggesting that…

    Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?

    I doubt that there is any Silicon-Valley-wide conspiracy to keep the Common People in their place…just people trying to make money and develop cool technology…but on the demand site, it should be of more than a little concern that escapism is so important to so many.

    • #7
  8. CACrabtree Coolidge
    CACrabtree
    @CACrabtree

    MiBlffed White Male (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    I watched enough television in those early years to get exactly that sense of missing imagination that is always there with reading. I also used the comparison to radio. I can’t really evaluate the effect but I’ll bet it is significant.

    Geez, do I miss Bloom County…

    • #8
  9. Caryn Thatcher
    Caryn
    @Caryn

    I’ve been increasingly disturbed by all of the written information that is now being channeled to us as television or some facsimile (like news pages linking to a video for the story instead of, literally, spelling it out).  Same goes for podcasts.  I want to read.  In some circumstances, like when my hands are busy and my mind not, I want to listen.  Almost never do I want to see, except for frank entertainment.  I listen to YouTube interviews as if they were podcasts, mainly because I’m not given a choice, but, really, do we need them to be visual?  There is something very manipulative about the passivity in consumption of visual media and, frankly, I don’t trust it.

    • #9
  10. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Caryn (View Comment):

    I’ve been increasingly disturbed by all of the written information that is now being channeled to us as television or some facsimile (like news pages linking to a video for the story instead of, literally, spelling it out). Same goes for podcasts. I want to read. In some circumstances, like when my hands are busy and my mind not, I want to listen. Almost never do I want to see, except for frank entertainment. I listen to YouTube interviews as if they were podcasts, mainly because I’m not given a choice, but, really, do we need them to be visual? There is something very manipulative about the passivity in consumption of visual media and, frankly, I don’t trust it.

    Amen, sistah!

    One of the sites I used to frequent had tons of reviews of stuff, and then over the last few years, almost all the reviews were video reviews. Basically, instead of writing out a review, it would just be a talking head giving the review. Write out the review, and I’ll read it. But I have no interest in sitting down and listening to you speak it.

    • #10
  11. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    What does this say about me?  When I read these days, I find myself keeping an eye out for “quotes of the day”. I am reading Andrew Roberts’s book on Winston Churchill. I have a write-on bookmark that is filled with page numbers for likely QOTD use. I circle in red my candidates in the Wall Street Journal too. 

    • #11
  12. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    It’s an interesting argument, but I’m not sure that the people who are “addicted” to TV – or other social media – would somehow straighten out if that were removed from their lives.  It seems more likely to me that they already have whatever “mental defect” is involved with that, and would be suffering its effects regardless.  Maybe they wouldn’t be watching TV all the time, but they’d still vote for Biden or whatever.  So what’s the difference, really?  If anything, they might be less harmful overall if they have easy access to “the opiate of the masses” and are left alone.  (Ideally without being allowed to vote, but that’s probably just a dream.)

    • #12
  13. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):
    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    Mebbe. On the other hand, the French coronation sword currently in the Louvre was purported to be Joyeuse. It has had parts added and modified and may be a case such as Lincoln’s rail-splitting axe (handle replaced seven times, head replaced five). But the blade itself is very old. It may go back to the 11th century, or even the early 9th, which would make it old enough to actually have been Charlemagne’s sword.

    When it comes to swords, historians are real cut-ups.

    I apologize for nothing.

    • #13
  14. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    There’s so many good non-fiction books being written right now though it’s rather exciting to me.
    I spent my late teens reading Philosophy and not understanding it, my 20’s reading novels, my 30’s reading scientific textbooks but the last few years have been almost all non fiction and it’s given me more if a sense of purpose in a way that I didn’t have before.

    It all kicked off for me when a friend suggested I read Amusing Ourselves to Death which is one of the main reasons I don’t have a TV in my own house.

    • #14
  15. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    A friend related to me a diatribe that Harlan wrote about a horrible and scalding email he had received that exemplified man’s inhumanity to man as routinely experienced on the Internet. This was in the late 90’s. My reply was, he had never experienced a bounced email before so he didn’t realize he was the sender.

    • #15
  16. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):
    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    Mebbe. On the other hand, the French coronation sword currently in the Louvre was purported to be Joyeuse. It has had parts added and modified and may be a case such as Lincoln’s rail-splitting axe (handle replaced seven times, head replaced five). But the blade itself is very old. It may go back to the 11th century, or even the early 9th, which would make it old enough to actually have been Charlemagne’s sword.

    When it comes to swords, historians are real cut-ups.

    I apologize for nothing.

    Dude. It’s a poem!

    • #16
  17. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):
    It all kicked off for me when a friend suggested I read Amusing Ourselves to Death which is one of the main reasons I don’t have a TV in my own house.

    I feel so smart for having first read that when it came out back in the 80s, and now everyone’s referencing it all the time!

    • #17
  18. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    And yet…

     

    • #18
  19. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    I tend to read lips and get a lot out of facial expression, when the context is natural (unlike with newsreaders or youtube videos).

    But the visual is important, too.  The thing I got from Oprah’s Meghan/Harry interview was the body language.

    Oprah slouched, virtually sprawling, unconcerned and nearly expressionless.

    Meghan sat not primly, or properly, but regally. Yet she carried an expression of being near tears. (Audrey Hepburn did it better at the end of Roman Holiday.)

    And Harry sat uncomfortably, with his butt as far away from Meghan as his chair allowed, but leaning precariously toward her, as he grasped – not held or clasped, but grasping her hand, until she nonchalantly removed it.

    And the expression on his face was not merely anger or even fear, but as if he were caught in a nightmare.

    I like to read, but I don’t think a transcript would have held the same import.

    • #19
  20. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Harlan Ellison heckled me at a book signing for closing the book to fast and almost smearing the ink

    He didn’t bring his own blotting paper? Inconsiderate.

    • #20
  21. Marjorie Reynolds Coolidge
    Marjorie Reynolds
    @MarjorieReynolds

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):
    It all kicked off for me when a friend suggested I read Amusing Ourselves to Death which is one of the main reasons I don’t have a TV in my own house.

    I feel so smart for having first read that when it came out back in the 80s, and now everyone’s referencing it all the time!

    He could have been writing about the internet and social media. I lent it to my brother and not only has he not read it he’s not sure where he left it 🙄

    • #21
  22. DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone Member
    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone
    @DrewInWisconsin

    Doing a “digital detox” is a great idea. One psychiatric in California came up with the idea of “dopamine fasting,” which got all the ‘experts’ upset because it’s not really ‘sciency’ to fast from a naturally-occurring chemical that your body actually needs. But it’s really a shorthand for fasting from that thing that gives you your next dopamine hit, whether that’s reaching for your iPhone or video games or potato chips or whatever. But in the digital age, I think resisting the lure of the digital is a habit worth developing, and instead using that time to reconnect with the analog: real people in meat space; nature; dead-tree media. It’s too easy to just lose yourself in clicking and scrolling. Resistance is not futile. 

    In religious traditions, we might refer to this as taking a sabbath break. How retro!

    • #22
  23. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    Doing a “digital detox” is a great idea. One psychiatric in California came up with the idea of “dopamine fasting,” which got all the ‘experts’ upset because it’s not really ‘sciency’ to fast from a naturally-occurring chemical that your body actually needs. But it’s really a shorthand for fasting from that thing that gives you your next dopamine hit, whether that’s reaching for your iPhone or video games or potato chips or whatever. But in the digital age, I think resisting the lure of the digital is a habit worth developing, and instead using that time to reconnect with the analog: real people in meat space; nature; dead-tree media. It’s too easy to just lose yourself in clicking and scrolling. Resistance is not futile.

    In religious traditions, we might refer to this as taking a sabbath break. How retro!

    For instance:

    ” ‘Nay, Measter,’ he said. ‘Tha hast been within too long. Let thee come art along of a nugly hurchin, that tha mayest sniff God’s air to thy nostrils, an lay thy head to the boozum o’ the earth.’ “
    The Book of Merlyn, T. H. White

    • #23
  24. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    Marjorie Reynolds (View Comment):
    It all kicked off for me when a friend suggested I read Amusing Ourselves to Death which is one of the main reasons I don’t have a TV in my own house.

    I feel so smart for having first read that when it came out back in the 80s, and now everyone’s referencing it all the time!

    He could have been writing about the internet and social media. I lent it to my brother and not only has he not read it he’s not sure where he left it 🙄

    If he ever finds it you can quote Christopher Morley:

    On the Return of a Book Lent to a Friend

    I GIVE humble and hearty thanks for the safe return of this book which having endured the perils of my friend’s bookcase, and the bookcases of my friend’s friends, now returns to me in reasonably good condition.

    I GIVE humble and hearty thanks that my friend did not see fit to give this book to his infant as a plaything, nor use it as an ash-tray for his burning cigar, nor as a teething-ring for his mastiff.

    WHEN I lent this book I deemed it as lost: I was resigned to the bitterness of the long parting: I never thought to look upon its pages again.

    BUT NOW that my book is come back to me, I rejoice and am exceeding glad! Bring hither the fatted morocco and let us rebind the volume and set it on the shelf of honour: for this my book was lent, and is returned again.

    PRESENTLY, therefore, I may return some of the books that I myself have borrowed.

    • #24
  25. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    A friend related to me a diatribe that Harlan wrote about a horrible and scalding email he had received that exemplified man’s inhumanity to man as routinely experienced on the Internet. This was in the late 90’s. My reply was, he had never experienced a bounced email before so he didn’t realize he was the sender.

    Ha! That’s funny. 

    • #25
  26. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):
    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    Mebbe. On the other hand, the French coronation sword currently in the Louvre was purported to be Joyeuse. It has had parts added and modified and may be a case such as Lincoln’s rail-splitting axe (handle replaced seven times, head replaced five). But the blade itself is very old. It may go back to the 11th century, or even the early 9th, which would make it old enough to actually have been Charlemagne’s sword.

    When it comes to swords, historians are real cut-ups.

    I apologize for nothing.

    Dude. It’s a poem!

    • #26
  27. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):
    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    Mebbe. On the other hand, the French coronation sword currently in the Louvre was purported to be Joyeuse. It has had parts added and modified and may be a case such as Lincoln’s rail-splitting axe (handle replaced seven times, head replaced five). But the blade itself is very old. It may go back to the 11th century, or even the early 9th, which would make it old enough to actually have been Charlemagne’s sword.

    When it comes to swords, historians are real cut-ups.

    I apologize for nothing.

    Dude. It’s a poem!

    And I thought I overthink things.

    • #27
  28. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):
    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    Mebbe. On the other hand, the French coronation sword currently in the Louvre was purported to be Joyeuse. It has had parts added and modified and may be a case such as Lincoln’s rail-splitting axe (handle replaced seven times, head replaced five). But the blade itself is very old. It may go back to the 11th century, or even the early 9th, which would make it old enough to actually have been Charlemagne’s sword.

    When it comes to swords, historians are real cut-ups.

    I apologize for nothing.

    Tee     Hee

    • #28
  29. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):
    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    Mebbe. On the other hand, the French coronation sword currently in the Louvre was purported to be Joyeuse. It has had parts added and modified and may be a case such as Lincoln’s rail-splitting axe (handle replaced seven times, head replaced five). But the blade itself is very old. It may go back to the 11th century, or even the early 9th, which would make it old enough to actually have been Charlemagne’s sword.

    When it comes to swords, historians are real cut-ups.

    I apologize for nothing.

    Dude. It’s a poem!

    And I thought I overthink things.

    No, he would be overthinking it only if he subjected us to a twenty-page Explication de Texte of the poem (which should be a violation of the CoC, or at least grounds for assault by a Python wielding a fish.)

    • #29
  30. kedavis Member
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Paul Stinchfield (View Comment):

    Sisyphus (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    DrewInEastHillAutonomousZone (View Comment):
    The sword of Charlemagne the Just
    Is ferric oxide, known as rust.

    Mebbe. On the other hand, the French coronation sword currently in the Louvre was purported to be Joyeuse. It has had parts added and modified and may be a case such as Lincoln’s rail-splitting axe (handle replaced seven times, head replaced five). But the blade itself is very old. It may go back to the 11th century, or even the early 9th, which would make it old enough to actually have been Charlemagne’s sword.

    When it comes to swords, historians are real cut-ups.

    I apologize for nothing.

    Dude. It’s a poem!

    And I thought I overthink things.

    No, he would be overthinking it only if he subjected us to a twenty-page Explication de Texte of the poem (which should be a violation of the CoC, or at least grounds for assault by a Python wielding a fish.)

    What a shame that I can’t find an image of Steve Martin’s “Rubberheads Throw Fish.”

    • #30