Bookish

2005-03-06

I read a lot of books -- in the last month or so I've read In Praise of Commercial Culture and Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures by Tyler Cowen, The Riddle of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane, The Author's Due: Printing and the Prehistory of Copyright by Joseph Loewenstein, Five Hundred Years of Printing by S.H. Steinberg, and a few others, plus I'm currently working my way through the Complete Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Complete Poems of Andrew Marvell, and The Growth of Biological Thought by the late Ernst Mayr (more on that one in another entry).

However, until yesterday I had never read a book that explained the significance of reading books. Such a one is Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong. Wow! Ong works hard to describe what it is like to live one's life in an exclusively oral culture (of which there are very few still in existence) and the differences between primarily oral cultures and primarily literate cultures. The result is a mind-opening exploration of, as the title says, orality and literacy.

In the bad old days, we used to call oral cultures "primitive", "savage", or some other convenient epithet. Yet Ong makes clear that oral people are not so much primitive as different. Consider an example from a study by Russian psychologist A.R. Luria, who investigated cultures on the cusp between orality and literacy (e.g., in Uzbekistan during the '20s and '30s). Luria would show people pictures of four objects -- such as an axe, a saw, a log, and a hammer -- then ask them to group the items together by separating off the item that did not belong with the others. Literate folks followed the kind of categorical thinking we're all familiar with by grouping together the axe, the saw, and the hammer -- they're all tools after all, right? But oral folks grouped together the axe, the saw, and the log, which all go together because you can use both a saw and an axe to cut wood, and we all need wood to cook food and keep ourselves warm, right? You can't argue with the logic of survival, and there's nothing primitive about exercising intelligence in the struggle to survive. Such thinking is not wrong or savage, but it is situational rather than categorical.

Similarly, oral people are distinctly uninterested in definitions, especially for everyday objects. Ask an oral person "what is a tree?" and the answer will be something like "everyone knows what a tree is, there are pine trees, ash trees, apple trees" and so on. By contrast, literate people define things, and we have big books containing thousands or even millions of definitions (in fact I sometimes read such books just for fun!).

According to Luria's research (Ong, p. 54), completely oral people also have trouble with self-analysis. When asked "what kind of person are you?", someone who is oral will talk about where he came from, how he and his family are faring, and the characteristics of his family or tribe, or perhaps question the very assumption that he would know himself: "What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can't say anything." (I sense a connection here to Aristotle's view that a friend is "another self" who can provide an objective perspective on one's nature and value.)

Once writing is internalized by a person or a culture, things change. The first culture to truly internalize the written word (what Ong calls a "chirographic culture") was ancient Greece, around the time of what A.R. Burn called The Lyric Age of Greece (around 700 BCE). The Iliad and the Odyssey were oral poems (see Lord, The Singer of Tales), but poets like Alkaios and Sappho were primarily writers, not singers. Historically if not necessarily, with the increasing internalization of the written word come categorical thinking, logic, philosophy, science, well-defined law, the state, self-analysis, privacy, urban living, and literature. The invention of print in typographic cultures has accelerated these trends and has also introduced new ones, as explained by Elizabeth Eisenstein in The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. The invention of digital information storage, retrieval, and manipulation will accelerate these trends even further.

Although we take our modern typographic (and increasingly "electrographic") culture for granted, of the 3000 languages in existence today only about 75 have a written literature, and even into the nineteenth century books were in large measure read aloud to others even in advanced nations, not read silently in the privacy of one's own mind.

A further step beyond the internalization of reading the word is the internalization of writing the word. Although literary elites scoff at email, IM, wikis, and weblogs, they fail to recognize that these technologies encourage an ever-wider range of people to write, and write often. Writing forces certain habits of thinking onto the mind, in a way that reading alone does not. It's the difference between shaping the word and being shaped by the word. There is tremendous power in shaping the word, in naming things (going back at least to Adam's naming of the animals), in expressing one's understanding of the world in one's own words. And that power -- along with its attendant attitudes and intellectual habits -- is exploding across the planet with the growth of the seemingly mundane but in fact revolutionary technologies of the Internet.

May you live in interesting times!


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal