Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains includes the following:
Theuth describes the art of writing to Thamus and argues that the Egyptians should be allowed to share in its blessings. It will, he says, “make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories,” for it “provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.” Thamus disagrees. He reminds the god that an inventor is not the most reliable judge of the value of his creation: “O man full of arts, to one is it given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reason of tender regard of the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect.” Should the Egyptians learn to write, Thamus goes on, “It will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will case to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” The word is “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance.” Those who rely on reading for their knowledge will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing.” They will be “filled, not with wisdom, but with conceit of wisdom.”
I do not live in an oral culture. Not reading would not suddenly make me memorize huge chunks of poetry or the history of my people. My memory would not suddenly improve and I would not be challenged to make it improve. The effect of reading, from where I am standing, is quite different than the effects that Thamus feared for his people.
Yet I find the description of Thamus’ fears interesting. I’ve read similar descriptions other times, when I’ve been teaching my children about ancient Egypt. I’ve wondered whether I should be putting more effort into encouraging my children to memorize more, attempting to create an artificial sort of pre-literate appreciation of memorization at home but never being able to do so because even the act of trying to memorize something is for me, to read and re-read it. I’ve wondered occasionally about whether the children sitting at home reading story after story is really any different than watching television show after television show. Reading is mentally active, perhaps, while television is passive but surely both actions discourages healthy physical activity, doesn’t it? Does living adventures vicariously though storybooks really substitute for getting out in the world and exploring?
I remember reading somewhere that when books first became inexpensive enough that private individuals could read them for recreation the concern was expressed that books would promote unsocialness. A person reading is not available for conversation and those the ideas the person gets from the book is not the being experienced also by those around him or her. My oldest son is finally old enough to read chapter books by himself and I have a slight taste of that isolation. Suddenly he’s venturing into imaginary worlds that I have no knowledge of.
I’m not against reading. I love reading. I love that my children are reading. But loving something doesn’t mean I don’t wonder about something’s implications.
My oldest has been reading the Harry Potter series. He’s read to book four and agreed with us to put off reading the others till he’s a bit older. I remember when he came downstairs disturbed at reading that Peter Pettigrew’s finger was all that could be found of him and shipped to his mother. “That’s disgusting,” he said. I shrugged and pointed out that he was okay with Luke losing his hand in Star Wars. “Yes,” he answered, “but that was different. I could see the actor just had his arm pulled up his shirt. I didn’t have to see the finger lying there in the box.” I couldn’t help smiling, because of course the book he was reading didn’t have any picture of the finger lying there in its box. The picture was entirely in his head, and yet there it was so much more powerful to him than the visual effects of the Star Wars movie.
While our son is reading the Harry Potter books, my husband and I have been going back through and rewatching the Harry Potter movies, at night, when the children are in bed. With each movie we’ve sat stumped trying to figure out if we’ve ever watched it before. We were sure we had watched most of them before, but what do we remember? Very little, it turns out. Probably part of that is because we watched them during sleep-deprived stressed out times in our lives, but also because – and I think this is the more powerful reason – we each have such clear images in our mind of how the story goes, images developed from reading the book, that the movies never really stuck. There isn’t room for them. The part of our brains that pictures what the events look like is filled with images we developed from the book.
Reading is powerful but does reading convey wisdom or only the semblance of it? Reading about something can never convey as much as experiencing it oneself. An author can take an experience, transfer some information about it but never the whole of the experience. Yet is not any experience limited? Every person is apt to pick up only a little about what they are experiencing, and perhaps reading a description of something would point out what the individual would miss in their own experience. If an author gathers together evidence from many different people’s experiences of an event or a situation, would they not be able to patch together a more complete picture than the individuals experience themselves?
Reading can flavor our other books and stories. I remember one book on Waldorf education that argued that only one story should be read to a child at a sitting, so that the story’s energy could be experienced untainted by comparison with the other. For myself I do the opposite. I read things in sets and let them contrast with one another. Sometimes meaning appears only when things overlap.
Reading can flavor our own experience. A picture book turned my children into giants and broccoli into trees. Complaining and other dementer-like activities brings about the cry of “Expecto Patronum” and chains of actions each with predictable reactions can bring about joking about “If you give a mouse a cookie…”. Books can provide metaphors and ways of understanding our own lives. A child’s unmet need is like the dragon in There’s No Such Thing as a Dragon. Max from Where the Wild Things Are can help a child make sense of the love-frustration relationship children have with their adults.
Yet do books end up coloring our vision enough that we don’t notice the strangeness of it? Do they prevent us from experiencing a less mediated life? Of course there isn’t any such thing as an unmediated life. If we don’t get our meaning from our books, we’d get it from our friends, the stories our parents tell, television shows or computer games. Books at least can reflect the perceptions of people from a decent span of time, whereas computer games and television shows can only reflect the present or more recent past.
Thamus worried that reading and writing would convey only the semblance of wisdom. I think it might have changed the definition of wisdom. Knowing about something is no longer an impressive act of memory or experience. Now the question is what can you do with what you know. Can you create something of your own out of it? Can you reflect on what it means?