Subscribe to Christianity Today
The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself
Yale University Press, 2014
456 pp., $35.00
David J. Davis
Putting the Newspaper in Its Place
"What news, my lord?" This is Horatio's first question to the prince of Denmark after Hamlet has seen his father's ghost. As events unfold, much of the play—the schemes, intrigue, and bloody conclusion—hinges upon the nature of news, whether from the king's ghost, Ophelia's love letters, or the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The play even ends with a news-oriented role reversal, as Horatio transitions from news consumer (as the vigilant spectator throughout the play) to the tragedy's surviving reporter.
News, as Hamlet demonstrates, comes in a variety of forms. Each has its own virtues and limitations, but all are intended to satiate what Andrew Pettegree calls the human "hunger for information." In his excellent book The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself, Pettegree unpacks how this hunger developed into a marketable commodity in early modern Europe and North America.
As the director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue, Pettegree is ideally suited for such a history. The Invention of News arcs across three hundred years of European history, detailing the importance of news-telling from the Reformation and the Battle of Lepanto to the Thirty Years' War and the French Revolution. Guiding the reader through this large swathe of history, Pettegree describes both the great leaps forward (like Emperor Maximilian I's use of a postal service) and the abject failures in the consumption of news.
Many scholars, most importantly Jürgen Habermas, identify the 18th century as a watershed in the birth of an informed public sphere, which was marked by the growing popularity of newspapers. However, The Invention of News tells a more elaborate story. The book argues that "news first became a commercial commodity … not in Defoe's London, or even in the invention of the newspaper, but much earlier: in the eighty years between 1450 and 1530." Long before and long ...