Listening to Letters from America while feeding the animals

by Kit Munro

On a bookshelf here there is a copy of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America 1946-2004. I have not been able to find a copy of this as an audiobook. What I have found, are various compilations – by decade – of his Letters From America. At the moment I have been working through the 1940s and 1950s. Letters from America are great to listen to while I do the daily chores just before the 6 o’clock news.

First the chickens must be fed and eggs collected. Their chook-house is an old water tank.


Then the sheepdog, Misty, must be feed and taken for a run. While pruning is on she gets little exercise but next week with the start of shearing she will get a lot more work and will not need a run at all. Once lambing starts in October she will be run off her feet. Much to her relief I am sure, as she seems to love chasing sheep.


Then, finally firewood must be collected and the fire set.


Alistair Cooke’s fifteen minute Letters suit the chores very well.  These “Letters” were a weekly BBC radio programme which reported on  life in the USA. I roughly have enough time to listen to two Letters a night.

They are history without being a history. Snapshots of the way things were that week. It puts things in perspective, listening to current events of 60 years ago before watching the current events of today.

One of the Letters tonight, from 1952, was on the appearance and rise of a new medium; Television. In 1948 there were 500,000 TVs in the United States. By 1952 there were 19 million. Contrast the two following statements made 60 years apart, but on the same topic, how television affects children;

There has been quite a bit of comment here in the last week or two on Mr T S Elliot’s comment that Britain should be aware of Television as a grave threat to –These were not his words but I think his sense– as a grave threat to leisure, to intelligence, and culture in general. The great question what will it do to our children rocked around the nation last year….

Northwestern University has just published the results of its survey of what television does to the child and its answer is: nothing. Nothing that hadn’t already been there or been done before. Television it seems is a reflector of what is in the child. Not a poisonous snake poisoning him from outside.

They found that for instance the amount of time spent on television by any one or any one hundred children has no correlation with their marks in school….. The rising generation is going to the dogs just as fast or just as slow as you or I did.

Alistair Cook Letter From America 1952

Then there is this statement;

Above all, do not use television as a childminder. Aside from having had their leisure time filled up with non-reading, your children, if they are average, will have seen 10,000 murders by the age of ten. They will be conditioned to expect the cheap fix of a spectacular event –a murder, rape, car chase or sex act– served up to them every few minutes on a platter.

This gives them a mental clock unfriendly to reading: they lack the patience to allow a writer to construct a character, atmosphere, moral dilemmas and plot through the use of words that take hours to absorb. Readers have to give something of themselves to a book, rather than just passively observe it.

Jim Flynn The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books 2010

Whoever is right, I still think the 6 o’clock news, the current events of today, is improved by being prefaced with Letters from America, the current events of yesterday.

I found my copy of Alistair Cooke’s Essential Letters  from America: The 1940s & 1950s here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is availible please let me know in the comments below.