Thursday, January 10, 2008

Oral and Literate

Caleb Crain writes in the New Yorker on the decline of reading.

Reviewing a new book by Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid), he speculates that soon, after a few brief millennia of being literate, we shall become a society of "secondary orality" - in which the bulk of our information will come in oral/visual form via TV and the internet, as opposed to newspapers and books.

This reversion to the oral and visual will mean a simpler public discourse. Cliché and stereotype will be more valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis will be discouraged. Literate habits of subtlety and refinement will be sidelined, as such skills will prove largely unnecessary. Reading will become "an arcane hobby".

Less brainpower will be used because "the efficient reading brain" which we will lose, "quite literally has more time to think" (Wolf). People will be more apt to accept propaganda or "the accepted view". This is because literacy enables abstract thought and analysis, while the oral brain embeds thought in simplified stories. The effort to memorise such stories compromises the mind's objectivity and disables its ability to deal with new details.

The other possibility (to which Crain alludes) is that we are on a pendulum which has seen the triumph of the visual and oral media in the shape of TV and cinema over the past century, but will self-correct in due course. The benefits of literacy, according to this view, are too powerful to be surrendered to the passing enjoyment of a purely visual and oral world.

Twilight of the Books: A Critic at Large: The New Yorker
New blog by writers F.O. Fyford, Freddie Omm and Fred De Baer

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