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Review: Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong

One of the best (and most challenging) books I’ve read in recent months is Walter J. Ong’s extraordinary Orality and Literacy – which documents the invention of writing and its effect on culture. Ong calls writing a “technological revolution” that not only transformed societies, but also re-structured the way individuals think and feel in the privacy of their own minds. After writing, the next revolution was the printing press, and from there it was a very small step to today’s mass media.

Ong does not waste ink in praise of reading and writing. He notes the benefits of literacy, but his foundational point is that writing (and subsequent print culture) came from something – from a rich and well-developed culture of speech Speech (“orality”) is more basic to humanity than literacy. Speech is the first communication; literacy might follow. And literacy is not neutral – it has negative consequences as well as those positives we are accustomed to hearing about from grade school.

Orality makes community, because speech always involves more than one person. Speech changes the atmosphere (literally!) that we breathe. An oral culture treats words with a profound respect that later literate cultures have the luxury to neglect. A printed text is stored on a shelf; an oral, memorized “text” is stored in the souls of society. Group hearing unites, but individual reading, though beneficial, can have the opposite effect. Though two are reading the same book, they are not necessarily having the same experience.

From a Christian perspective, the immediately practical application of Ong’s book is new insight into the necessity of both orality and literacy for understanding the Gospel. Jesus left no writings, and the text that today we call the New Testament was not finally compiled until nearly ad 400. Many detractors will use this as proof of the early Church’s inevitable distortion of Christ’s message. But after reading Ong’s thoughts on oral culture, I am (even more) convinced of the ability of the first Christians not only to remember but also to pass on the Faith with accuracy.

Paul could confidently write to the Thessalonians, “hold to the traditions you were taught by word or by our epistle,” and he could trust that both spoken and written instruction would be preserved.

The same could be said of the Old Testament, which its critics accuse of error because it was not fully compiled (that is, written) until a few centuries before Christ. Knowing the strengths of orality encourages us not to think that the Torah and Prophets were “fluid” before this time. Rather, it means that the words of the Law were lived and tested in community before being gathered in scrolls.

From an educational standpoint, the importance of memorization, recitation, reading aloud and public speaking skills couldn’t be better impressed than through Ong’s careful look into the history of rhetoric as a crafted discipline. As media have overtaken the educational system, the arts of recitation and rhetoric have disappeared from the classroom. Few but classical educators would notice the loss.

Along with education, politics, psychology, religion and science are profoundly influenced by the difference in mental outlook caused by silent, private, interiorized reading. The Reformation and the Counter-reformation, for example, would not have been possible without the printing press. Abstract thought and modern mathematics don’t just make use of print, print actually transforms the way we think and makes new thought categories possible for us.

Orality and Literacy is small and dense. As someone used to a more narrative style, I had to walk carefully through Ong’s lists of references and case studies – all very well presented and fascinating. The chapter on the “psychodynamics of orality” is especially illuminating for someone interested in mental health, as well as the comparison of sight-dominant with sound-dominant cultures.

Following Ong, I accept that writing is a technology, and this has changed my view of reading, print and media. But this change of view is not negative. I would now be more considerate of what I read and write, and more careful of what I say in community. And, the “public proclamation of the Gospel” on Sundays will strike me with a little more power. Liturgy, after all, is the Church’s shared speech, and the Word of God is not a book, but a Person.

You can buy a copy of this book at Eighth Day Books.

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