I found the beginning of the book fascinating, offering new (to me) information about the beginning of written language, how it takes different forms depending on whether it is picture-like or not, noting differences between languages that were representative of sounds or of things. Fascinating stuff. It was news to me that Socrates railed against the spread of written language, believing that spreading a way for many people to gain knowledge would have a net negative effect on the ability of people to think and communicate. In a society in which knowledge was transmitted orally, strength of memory was paramount, and control of information thus very limited to the few who were both able and wealthy enough to spare the many years it took to memorize the knowledge of the realm.
But I found most of the book a bit too technical for me, even though it was written for a general audience. I expect it will be most valued by college and grad students of linguistics and brain sciences and by professionals who deal with reading disorders. Much of the latter sections of the book address specifics on what reading problems constitute dyslexia, how reading constraints originate in different brain parts depending on the sort of language one is attempting to master, and whether what we see as a negative we might not actually be in some ways a positive. Wolf notes that many of the greatest minds in human history would have been diagnosed as dyslexic today. But the heavy reliance on the right brain that characterizes dyslexics manifests in increased creativity. How much is cause and how much is effect is unclear, but it is noteworthy that a problem with reading does not indicate anything about intelligence.
Try to imagine a situation in which the educated members of an oral culture had to depend entirely on personal memorization and meta-cognitive strategies to preserve their collective knowledge. Such strategies, however impressive, came with a cost. Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly, dependence on rhythm, memory, formulas, and strategy constrained what could be said, remembered, and created.
The alphabet and other writing systems did away with most of those constraints, thereby enlarging the boundaries of what could be thought and written by more people. But is this a unique contribution of the Greek alphabet, or is it the very act of writing that promotes new levels of thought for more people? If we look back almost a 1,000 years before the Greeks to the Ugaritic writing system. We can observe a good example of what an y alphabet-like system can do within a culture. If we look bask still earlier to Akkadian literature…we see an outpouring of thought…recorded by a nonalphabetic logosyllabary.
By taking a meta-view of this entire history, we can see that what promotes the development of intellectual thought in human history is not the first alphabet or even the best iteration of an alphabet but writing itself. As the twentieth-century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky said, the act of putting spoken words and unspoken thoughts into written words releases and, in the process changes the thoughts themselves. As humans learned to use written language more and more precisely to convey their thoughts, their capacity for abstract thought and novel ideas accelerated.
The unbridgeable differences that Socrates saw between spoken and written words in their different pedagogical and philosophical uses, in their ability to depict reality, and in their capacity to refine thought and virtue were mild in comparison with his concern for the changes literacy would bring to memory, and the individual’s internalization of knowledge. Socrates well knew that literacy could greatly increase cultural memory, but he didn’t want the consequences of the trade.
By committing to memory and examining huge amounts of orally transmitted material, young educated Greek citizens both preserved the extant cultural memory of their society and increased personal and societal knowledge. Unlike the judges at his trial, Socrates held this entire system in esteem not so much from a concern for preserving tradition as from the belief that only the arduous process of memorization was sufficiently rigorous to form the basis of a personal knowledge that could then be refined in dialogue with a teacher. From this larger interconnected view of language, memory, and knowledge, Socrates concluded that written language was not a “recipe” for memory, but a potential agent of its destruction. Preserving the individual’s memory and its role in the examination and embodiment of knowledge was more important than the indisputable advantages of writing in preserving cultural memory.
Reading changes our lives, and our lives change our reading.
I differ with Kurzweil’s implicit assumption that an exponential acceleration of thought processes is altogether positive. In music, in poetry, and in life, the rest, the pause, the slow movements are essential to comprehending the whole. Indeed, in our brain there are “delay neurons” whose sole function is to slow neuronal transmission by other neurons for mere milliseconds. These are the inestimable milliseconds that allow sequence and order in our apprehension of reality, and that enable us to plan ans synchronize soccer moves and symphonic movements.
The new circuits and pathways that the brain fashions in order to read become the foundation for being able to think in different, innovative ways.
The reading revolution, therefore, was both neuronally and culturally based, and it began with the emergence of the first comprehensive writing systems, not the first alphabet. The increased efficiency of writing and the memory it freed contributed to new forms of thought, and so did the neuronal systems set up to read. New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read; the increasingly sophisticated intellectual skills promoted by reading and writing added to our intellectual repertoire, and continue to add to it.
…Socrates worries were not so much about literacy as about what might happen to knowledge if the young had unguided, uncritical access to information. For Socrates, the search for real knowledge did not revolve around information. Rather, it was about finding the essence and purpose of life. Such a search required a lifelong commitment to developing the deepest critical and analytical skills, and to internalizing personal knowledge through the prodigious use of memory, and long effort. Only these conditions assured Socrates that a student was capable of moving from exploring knowledge in dialogue with a teacher to a path of principles that lead to action, virtue, and ultimately to a “friendship with his god.” Socrates saw knowledge as a force for the higher good; anything—such as literacy—that might endanger it was anathema.
Ultimately, the questions Socrates raised for Athenian youth apply equally to our own. Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and the sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another’s inner thought processes, and of our own unconsciousness?