Going back to oral culture

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to expand on his or her essay. This week’s guest blogger is Prof. Lutz Koepnick of Vanderbilt University.

Groucho Marx once quipped: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” When recently asked what they like about reading, my teenage daughters and their friends offered their own takes: “Books allow me to forget all the troubles of the present world and focus on a different reality.” “Opening the first page of a book can transport us into another world or open our eyes to see the one we live in more clearly.” “I like reading because it helps improve my SAT score.”

Self-improvement, knowledge, imaginary displacement, friendship, consolation, diversion – all these are important arguments, made throughout the history of the written word, on why reading is good for a reader’s mind and heart. One of the most important, albeit often forgotten, effects of good reading is to hone one’s writing. What we need to keep in mind, however, is that templates of good writing themselves are subject to historical change. Our age of mobile electronic writing, instant connectivity, computational spell-checkers, and at one copious and often ephemeral text production certainly requires a different concept of good writing than an age of rare readers and writers.

It is often said that mobile electronic reading and writing today moves us closer again to what scholar Walter Ong famously termed oral culture. Unlike literate cultures, oral cultures do not produce fixed physical records to transmit thoughts and meanings. Orality stresses repetition and rhythm rather than unalterable inscription as a tool of effective communication and memorization.

Teachers of good writing and reading today might want to learn a lesson from this to meet the demands of our new age of electronic orality. They should urge students to acquire greater skills in working with the beats, tempos, and rhythms—the musicality—of language, and perhaps place less emphasis on grammatical correctness or the semantics of individual words. Good writers today understand how to make the rhythm of their language speak in order to connect to the minds of their often restless readers.



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