By The Book

If we couldn’t read

Peter Arkle/peter arkle

The other day I went to the movies with my kids. It was a public holiday so we went early, which meant that we had to sit through a lot of ads. In one of these, a manic-looking woman danced around and sang the praises of the Barnes and Noble Nook. The ad highlighted the device’s various capabilities, describing how the Nook could bring you movies, music, apps, and books, and showing an example of each in turn.

When we got to books, however, I was startled to see that what was displayed on the Nook was not type but rather illustration - from Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh,’’ if I’m not mistaken, and so not only a children’s book but a text-light version with movie and TV tie-ins. It was blindingly clear that the advertisers believed the device’s selling point to be its capacity to deliver pictures not words, or if words then in aural form, as in words spoken in a movie. Despite the common notion that the Nook is an “eReader,’’ that it can deliver printed text seemed quite beside the point.


There is much agonizing in our society over the idea that reading is on the wane. I have no way of knowing whether this is true, though I think it is clear that the volume of visual imagery in our lives is steadily increasing. I don’t actually think that there is the remotest chance that people will ever stop reading altogether, though there probably is a good chance they will stop reading the kinds of things that I (and my parents and their parents) thought one ought to read, which is perhaps what all the fuss is really about.

But the idea of not reading at all, or, to take it one step further, of living in a world in which reading does not exist, is almost inconceivable. In fact, according to some theorists, it is strictly inconceivable, that is, we cannot even imagine it because literacy itself - not individual literacy but literacy as a cultural phenomenon - has changed the way we understand the world.


This is the argument made in a fascinating book by Walter J. Ong called “Literacy and Orality,’’ first published in 1982. In it, Ong sets out a general theory of the differences between the kind of thinking that makes sense in a purely oral culture, where writing has not yet arisen or been introduced, and the kind of thinking that characterizes cultures in which literacy has taken hold.

Many of these differences have to do with categorization and abstraction. Oral thought and cultures, according to Ong, are essentially concrete and situational. Things in an oral culture are defined not in terms of the abstract or theoretical category to which they belong (i.e., tool, mammal, vegetable) but in terms of the context in which they are found or the uses to which they can be put.

One of my favorite moments in the book comes when Ong describes a series of experiments conducted by the Russian psychologist A.R. Luria in remote parts of Uzbekistan and Kirghizia in the early 1930s. Luria’s subjects, who had had little or no exposure to literacy, were shown pictures of objects and asked to group them based on their similarity, for example, a saw, a hammer, a hatchet, and a log of wood. The subjects, writes Ong, “consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations.’’ When it was suggested that the hammer, saw, and hatchet were all tools and therefore belonged together one of them said, “Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood - otherwise we can’t build anything.’’ (My first thought when I read this was that it might be a measure of something other than orality because it’s exactly what my husband would have said.)


According to Ong and other thinkers who follow this same theoretical path, there are whole bodies of knowledge that are not possible in a purely oral world: geometry, for example, or formal logic, or documentary history, or any kind of philosophy that concerns itself with abstract ideas like Truth or Beauty or Justice or Death. Such concepts are not unknown in oral cultures, of course, but they are typically embodied in narratives with characters and take the form of parables and myths.

There have been plenty of challenges to Ong’s ideas, and to those of the classicist Eric A. Havelock to whom Ong was heavily indebted. And no doubt there are many instances of overstatement and failures to consider alternative explanations that would account equally well for the facts. But with all the Sturm and Drang these days around the idea of reading, it seems like a worthwhile thought experiment to try to imagine a world in which there was in fact nothing to read. A world in which there were not only no Nooks or Kindles, but no books, scrolls, clay tablets, or mysterious pictographs.


Are we fundamentally different from the people who lived for tens of thousands of years before the advent of writing? Do we think in fundamentally different ways? Are our cognitive processes actually different and, if so, does this mean that the technological revolution through which we are now living is changing us again? I have no answer to these questions; I can’t even decide whether I think Ong is right. But I certainly think his work is worth reading - and maybe even on a Nook.

Christina Thompson, editor of Harvard Review and author of “Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All,’’ can be reached at christina@comeonshore.com.