22 December 2012 - 7:20 pm

From Text to Oral Tradition

No, this isn’t a post about porn. Hush, you. Not that kind of oral.

A few years ago, I went to a talk about the future of publishing. It was at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival, but other than that, I can’t remember much about it except for one thing that stood out for me: one of the panel was convinced that the future of fiction was oral.

This notion really stood out for me because it was so bizarre. I went home thinking, “Really? Is that what experts really believe will happen?”

She (sadly, all I can remember is that the speaker was a she, and possibly blonde) put forward the assertion that the digital age meant that eventually, text would drift into disuse and all we would have left is speech. Audio books, aural directions. There would be no physical words at all, recorded anywhere.

She was very convincing. To her, it all makes perfect sense; I got that feeling very strongly. But I can’t help but question: where the hell did that idea come from? Are we really heading that way?

Our world is full of text. Not just books: signs, buttons, instructions, warning labels. Would that really all go away? Would that be feasible, practical, safe? My instincts tell me ‘no’ (and my brain tells me ‘that’s just stupid’, but that’s what her fervour implied).

I’m sure she didn’t mean that. She was speaking mostly about fiction, about how digital books would all become audio and the ‘written word’ as us writers produce it would no longer exist.

I have to say, I struggle to see how that would come to pass.

Reading and listening are very different activities. Listening is passive and done with only one part of the body, but reading is active and done with our whole selves. All of our senses are involved (though with ebooks, the smell and textures are quite different). It demands all of our attention, in a way that listening to the spoken word doesn’t. A reader can curl up with and around a good book, but how would you do that with an audio book?

For me, the difference in involvement makes listening to an audio book quite a different process. There’s nothing for my eyes to do, so they’d get bored and look for something to examine. A portion of my attention just wandered off my gaze. And my hands would be free, so maybe I’d be knitting (or wait, this is the future – I’d be sculpting the cat’s fur with a laser, or sliding my car through four layers of sky-traffic). All these things would pull more and more of me away from the story.

I have a suspicion that reading and listening involve different parts of the brain as well, but I haven’t gone as far as looking it up. I’m sure someone somewhere has done a study!

Then there are all the things that would be lost in an audio book. You get the actor’s interpretation of the story; there is no opportunity to have your own reading and understanding of the material. Different people read things in very different ways, and this is fun to play with as a writer. But when a single voice is reading it out, how can you put in all those double-meanings when a simple inflection can bleach them away? How do you go back and ponder a single line three times, trying it out differently each time? How do you skip the boring bits?

How do you cater for the deaf?

The whole notion of losing text as a storytelling medium scares me. It is such a beautiful art form that I think the world would be a sadder, duller place without it. The impact of a single-word paragraph would be lost in an aural presentation, reduced to lameness and cut.


Just having someone say that like it means something isn’t the same.

Text and audio are qualitatively different, in my opinion. You can get lost in text. You can let your imagination run wild over its possibilities, paint wild pictures that make sense only to you, but in an audio book, someone has drawn the outline and coloured parts of it in for you.

Let’s not forget that an oral tradition would be a huge step backwards in human evolution. We might have once happily told stories around a campfire, but the move to literacy wasn’t because we lacked the iPads to speak to us when our voices got tired. We sought something better and still do.

We are developing more and more ways to record our thoughts and stories, but, curiously, we haven’t lost any. We just keep adding more dimensions to our archives: visual representations in text; sounds in audio; movement and visualisation in video. And telling stories is still a big part of who we are.

A part of me wants to rebel against the whole idea of this change to an oral society. I suspect that it’s a gut reaction to losing something that I care so deeply about (and am so heavily involved in!). Just because I think it’s a horrible idea, doesn’t mean the world won’t lean that way.

I mean, I wasn’t a fan of the idea of ebooks either, because I love how paper books feel and smell and age with us. But popular opinion will drive things the way they go, so who’s to say?

But I don’t think that it’s just pure dislike on my part. I can’t logically see how such a change would come about. We live in more text now than we ever have before, largely because of the internet and progress, but this speaker is proposing the opposite. I’d love to know where she got her prediction from (if only so I can feel more authoritative in shooting it down).

I hope that a purely oral society doesn’t come to pass. I fear the future that is nothing but a babble of voices telling us truths and lies. I dread the day when a person can’t escape into a fictional world and have wondrous adventures in perfect privacy. I fear the death of personal imagination.

No, I defy such a prediction. I disbelieve.

Video killed the radio star, but book sales will always go up.

Musing on the likelihood of reading moving to listening in the future.

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