Beware the Double Edged Sword of Literacy

Writing | Literacy |Books

It’s Not Always Positive

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When I grew up, everyone in my family was an avid reader, so I believed in the power of the written word.

In our house if you had a problem that you didn’t know how to solve, you went to the library and found the solution in a book. That’s probably why I’m fond of self help books.

I was surprised to discover literacy may not be a positive change.

When I read the book Nine Lives by William Dalrymple, it intrigued me to discover that a hereditary oral tradition has been negatively affected by increases in literacy in India.

In the book, Mohan Bhopa is a hereditary singer of epic stories that are very long and complex. He travels from village to village in India, telling the stories that have been passed down orally for generations in his family.

Bhopa is illiterate.

Dalrymple proposed that his illiteracy has actually helped preserve this oral tradition. I did some research and was surprised to discover that there is other evidence that literacy can have a negative effect on an ancient oral tradition.

Dalrymple discussed the idea that a person who is unable to read or write develops a stronger memory. The ability to remember the monumental epics enacted by Bhopan and his family illustrates the concept.

Could it be true that the inability to write or record a story allows the storyteller to impress it deeper into his memory?

Modern recording methods relieved us of the need to recall stories and tell them to each other. As we became a literate society, stories were preserved in writing, audio recordings and photographs.

This allowed ideas to be shared to a broader audience, supporting learning and advances in science and medicine.

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But there are other benefits to an oral tradition.

The act of telling a story breathes life into it. When you sit around a fire circle and listen to a storyteller, there is a certain magic that is absent when you sit alone with the written word.

When a story exists outside of the speaker, it changes the nature of the story.

The fact that you must be there to hear it gives the story a presence, a physical form. The gestures, tone of voice and facial expressions provide an understanding that is not available with the written word and affect the impact of the story on the listener.

When you read a book, you are not encouraged to expand your senses to include other information. You may be thoroughly engrossed in your book, but the images produced by your brain are your interpretation of the words on the page, not the storytellers.

This is clear when comparing religions with a written tradition to those with an oral narrative. When you read a holy book, you are limited to the pages held within the covers of the book. No matter how sacred the words, they are limited in number.

If sacred information is recited in your presence, your eyes are free to notice the non verbal cues that exist, such as the way the storyteller is forceful when he speaks a certain name and quieter with another.

A priest who tells us stories from the pulpit is very aware that how the story is told will influence people in a different way.

Texting is another example where writing can change the message.

I find that texts can be misinterpreted very easily. Without a person’s tone of voice, gestures or eye contact and facial expressions, we are left to decide what the words were intended to mean.

An industry has sprung up around the need for emoticons, which are small faces and images we can insert into our text to indicate emotions that are missing in the text.

We write our message and add a smiley face, to keep it light and ensure we aren’t coming across as negative. 🙂

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The sheer volume of the written word that exists about any particular subject has a weight that can be overwhelming for the reader.

The act of listening is a powerful art that connects us to others.

When we listen to a story, we can give it our full attention and we absorb the message. We better understand what is important about it.

When there is too much information, the message can be missed.

An oral tradition supports participation in a community.

It used to connect us to the ancient ones as we listened to elders repeat communal memories around the sacred fire.

When word of mouth is the only way to receive information, isolation is not an option, as interacting with others provides the information you require to survive. You have to talk to others if you want to know what’s going on.

Reading allows us to be informed while remaining isolated.

We know that memory can weaken if it’s not exercised. Stories are forgotten too. In a community with a strong oral tradition, every bit of knowledge had to be passed on by recalling and repeating the stories. Each person helped ensure the record was correct by repeating it back.

The introduction of the written word resulted in fewer people making the effort to memorize a story and that adversely affected the oral tradition in India. The descendants of Bhopa are unlikely to continue the hereditary tradition of storytelling.

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Our ability to recall large quantities of data is hardly ever needed and so most people have lost that ability.

The pendulum is swinging even further as the introduction of technology is causing us to lose our literacy.

The internet has removed the need to read books as there is so much information available online. We sometimes hesitate to write our stories because there are so many voices out there.

We share information in small bits, a short headline, a tag line, a tweet, a video, or a snapchat. The actual word ‘snapchat’ says a lot about how things have changed. A story told in a single photo is put out there for interpretation.

Our responses are also shortened to a ‘like’, a ‘heart’ or a ‘smiley’. There is no repeating the message back to ensure our understanding is correct.

We are increasingly overwhelmed by information.

Communities have become unable to determine the validity of information because there is so much of it available. It’s also easy to put false information out and it’s difficult to verify the truth.

There are so many people that can communicate with us, which makes it hard to be familiar with our sources. We used to know all of our neighbours. Now we hardly know half of them. It is difficult to know who we can trust.

Story telling still exist in pockets.

Small community theatres, religious congregations, poetry readings at coffee shops and story time at the library are all examples of how we connect to each other by telling and listening to stories.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Supporting these surviving remnants of our ancient oral traditions is important. They bring us together and give us the opportunity to experience and interpret our stories in a variety of ways.

When we come together and listen carefully, it is possible to hear the ancient sacred circle, a quiet echo of the storytellers from the past.

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