David Montgomery's Reviews > Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word

Orality and Literacy by Walter J. Ong
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really liked it

This is a five-star book in terms of its content: Ong's theory about the orality-literacy binary is illuminating, if oversimplified.

His main argument: that oral speech and written word are not merely two different ways of expressing the same thing, but qualitatively different with far-reaching implications. Drawing on literary analysis and anthropological studies in pre-literate societies, Ong argues that oral culture is driven by the inability to ever "look something up." As a result, oral cultures exist perpetually in the present — only what can be remembered exists, so communication in these cultures is designed to be mnemonic: proverbs, rhymes and verse, containing larger-than-life characters, catchy phrasing and a focus on the communal rather than the individual. People who've interiorized writing as part of literate cultures have no need to keep everything in their minds, so they can be more inwardly focused, more analytic, more linear and less digressive. (Though literacy clearly has benefits, Ong is careful not to describe it as superior to orality; knowing that he is writing to literate readers, Ong goes to great pains to defend and explain orality.) The two ideas aren't binary, but rather represent a continuum — many people are influenced, in Ong's formulation, by both oral and literate modes of thought and communication, but some are more literate than others.

The book passes the standard of my very favorite works of nonfiction: it gives me an analytic framework I can generalize and apply to other areas. (One striking application of Ong's work others have recently made: looking at the many ways in which President-elect Donald Trump's speeches and tweets reflect the oral tradition.)

Unfortunately, I can't give it the usual five-star review I would to that type of transformative work because for a variety of reasons it falls just short in its presentation. Orality and Literacy is in some cases over-technical in its language, in other cases too bound up with arcane academic disputes, even though it was written as a popularization of Ong's more academic work. It's not a hard read per se, but it's not as accessible as it could be. More significantly, it spends so much time responding to the assumed pro-literate bias of Ong's readers and interlocutors that it often falls short in defining the literacy half of his dichotomy. It's assumed that readers are familiar with literate culture, which we may very well be (on Ong's continuum I'm certainly hyper-literate), but I'd have appreciated more of a compare-and-constrast approach.

It's also worth noting that some of Ong's theories are dated, not least by the revolutionary changes in communication brought about by the Internet and mobile phones since this was published in 1983. Additionally scholars in various fields have challenged some of his conclusions. Fortunately, the 30th Anniversary Edition I read includes a very helpful afterword that takes on some of these criticisms and changes in a fair manner.

Ultimately these are more quibbles than objections. I wish the book were better, but even with its flaws, people who enjoy this sort of conceptual theories should absolutely give this a read.
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Reading Progress

December 25, 2016 – Started Reading
December 31, 2016 – Shelved
December 31, 2016 – Finished Reading

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