I drive a lot, both for demands of the day job, and for personal obligations. Because I drive a lot, my iPod is my best friend on most days, breaking the silence with music, and podcasts. I always have a good podcast ready, nearly for every day of the week, at least. When traveling by car for a longer distance, Karen and I also make audiobooks a habit. Its not that I don’t love music…quite the opposite. I’m a passionate advocate of variety in musical taste. Sometimes, though, you want to hear good conversations or ideas or commentary. Or fiction.
And there’s something very satisfying about knowing that you’re smarter after finishing that two-hour drive during which you might otherwise have been wasting your time. Its even nicer to know you’ve finished that book you’ve been wanting to read.
The thought occurred to me last week, during one of my regular podcasts, that audio is as important a medium for me as video is to many others. I’ve heard other people voice a similar preference, and some even state openly that audio is really the only way that they read lately.
Initially, of course, this gives me pause. As a writer, I want to climb onto a soapbox to proclaim the inviolable necessity of the written word. I want to talk about how ideas and knowledge are circulated primarily through the written word, whether by books or blogs or other mediums, and that audio can never replace this.
Except, when I think about it, I still refer to listening to an audiobook as reading.
Its difficult to put into perspective at times that the written word has not always been man’s primary method of passing on knowledge, wisdom, and tradition. In the Eastern origins of civilization, most cultures were, in fact, oral cultures, in which storytellers and teachers verbally passed on important stories, knowledge, and wisdom from generation to generation. Remarkably, this was not similar to the game “telephone” you might remember playing as a child, because these oral histories survived intact and unaltered in any significant way for generations, until the written word usurped oral tradition as the primary method of communication. At that point, these oral traditions were placed into written form. Thus, most ancient histories of which we have written documents today were originally adept at passing on their histories and what we would call important “texts” orally.
I wonder if the popularity of listening to the printed word as a (for some) mainstay to “read” the material is a nod to these oral traditions, perhaps an involuntary recognition that they were in some way superior. I don’t for a second think that, barring some cataclysmic, apocalyptic event, the written word will die (although it may survive as a text-messaged shell of its original glory), but I do think that oral transmission has more than proven its durability as a primary medium of communication. Podcasts and audiobooks were preceded by radio, which has been a mainstay for distributing important news and information in recent human history, particularly during war times. And radio was preceded by town criers, and so on back through history to the oral traditions.
If I recall my history correctly, ancient philosophers expressed fear that a transition from oral tradition to the written word would corrupt history. What we can see today is that, frequently, the written word places an emphasis of exact, denotative meaning, whereas oral transmission of a message can be more open to the connotative meaning, perhaps giving more flexibility to interpret the actual substance of the message. Of course, the argument can also be made that historical mis-use of authority by those who were able to read over the illiterate in society could have been curbed if oral communication were more widely recognized as a viable tool for communication.
Remember the ending of the Book of Eli? After what was supposed to the be the physical book that he was guarding with his life was taken from him, the viewer discovers that the protagonist has preserved the text of the King James Bible, one of the most important compilations in human history, by memorizing it to the letter. He sits and instructs the scribe to write exactly what he says, and begins reciting the entire Bible, word for word.
I say all of this to say that oral communication is just as important a medium of conveying our thoughts, records, and knowledge as the written word. I’m not sure that I can claim one to be superior over the other…that, I think, would be fallacious. I can say with some certainty, though, that, despite the dominance of the written word and how it contributes to the precise nature of politics, law, and history, that hearing instead of visually reading has proven itself just as important a medium of communication by its continued reliability and use. I think that our affinity for listening to podcasts, and talk radio, and news, and even literature, proves this most ancient of communication methods to still be of the highest importance to our (post)modern culture.
Photo Attribution: CarbonNYC