Authors: Nicholas Carr
The technology of writing took an important step forward around the end of the fourth millennium BC. It was then that the Sumerians, living between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, began writing with a system of wedge-shaped symbols, called cuneiform, while a few hundred miles to the west the Egyptians developed increasingly abstract hieroglyphs to represent objects and ideas. Because the cuneiform and hieroglyphic systems incorporated many logosyllabic characters, denoting not just things but also speech sounds, they placed far greater demands on the brain than did the simple accounting tokens. Before readers could interpret the meaning of a character, they had to analyze the character to figure out how it was being used. The Sumerians and the Egyptians had to develop neural circuits that, according to Wolf, literally “crisscrossed” the cortex, linking areas involved not only in seeing and sense-making but in hearing, spatial analysis, and decision making.
As these logosyllabic systems expanded to include many hundreds of characters, memorizing and interpreting them became so mentally taxing that their use was probably restricted to an intellectual elite blessed with a lot of time and brain power. For writing technology to progress beyond the Sumerian and Egyptian models, for it to become a tool used by the many rather than the few, it had to get a whole lot simpler.
That didn’t happen until fairly recently—around 750 BC—when the Greeks invented the first complete phonetic alphabet. The Greek alphabet had many forerunners, particularly the system of letters developed by the Phoenicians a few centuries earlier, but linguists generally agree that it was the first to include characters representing vowel sounds as well as consonant sounds. The Greeks analyzed all the sounds, or phonemes, used in spoken language, and were able to represent them with just twenty-four characters, making their alphabet a comprehensive and efficient system for writing and reading. The “economy of characters,” writes Wolf, reduced “the time and attention needed for rapid recognition” of the symbols and hence required “fewer perceptual and memory resources.” Recent brain studies reveal that considerably less of the brain is activated in reading words formed from phonetic letters than in interpreting logograms or other pictorial symbols.
The Greek alphabet became the model for most subsequent Western alphabets, including the Roman alphabet that we still use today. Its arrival marked the start of one of the most far-reaching revolutions in intellectual history: the shift from an oral culture, in which knowledge was exchanged mainly by speaking, to a literary culture, in which writing became the major medium for expressing thought. It was a revolution that would eventually change the lives, and the brains, of nearly everyone on earth, but the transformation was not welcomed by everyone, at least not at first.
Early in the fourth century BC, when the practice of writing was still novel and controversial in Greece, Plato wrote
, his dialogue about love, beauty, and rhetoric. In the tale, the title character, a citizen of Athens, takes a walk with the great orator Socrates into the countryside, where the two friends sit under a tree beside a stream and have a long and circuitous conversation. They discuss the finer points of speech making, the nature of desire, the varieties of madness, and the journey of the immortal soul, before turning their attention to the written word. “There remains the question,” muses Socrates, “of propriety and impropriety in writing.”
Phaedrus agrees, and Socrates launches into a story about a meeting between the multitalented Egyptian god Theuth, whose many inventions included the alphabet, and one of the kings of Egypt, Thamus.
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 invention: “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 the tender regard for 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 cease 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 written word is “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its 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 the conceit of wisdom.”
Socrates, it’s clear, shares Thamus’s view. Only “a simple person,” he tells Phaedrus, would think that a written account “was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters.” Far better than a word written in the “water” of ink is “an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner” through spoken discourse. Socrates grants that there are practical benefits to capturing one’s thoughts in writing—“as memorials against the forgetfulness of old age”—but he argues that a dependence on the technology of the alphabet will alter a person’s mind, and not for the better. By substituting outer symbols for inner memories, writing threatens to make us shallower thinkers, he says, preventing us from achieving the intellectual depth that leads to wisdom and true happiness.
Unlike the orator Socrates, Plato was a writer, and while we can assume that he shared Socrates’ worry that reading might substitute for remembering, leading to a loss of inner depth, it’s also clear that he recognized the advantages that the written word had over the spoken one. In a famous and revealing passage at the end of
, a dialogue believed to have been written around the same time as
, Plato has Socrates go out of his way to attack “poetry,” declaring that he would ban poets from his perfect state. Today we think of poetry as being part of literature, a form of writing, but that wasn’t the case in Plato’s time. Declaimed rather than inscribed, listened to rather than read, poetry represented the ancient tradition of oral expression, which remained central to the Greek educational system, as well as the general Greek culture. Poetry and literature represented opposing ideals of the intellectual life. Plato’s argument with the poets, channeled through Socrates’ voice, was an argument not against verse but against the oral tradition—the tradition of the bard Homer but also the tradition of Socrates himself—and the ways of thinking it both reflected and encouraged. The “oral state of mind,” wrote the British scholar Eric Havelock in
Preface to Plato
, was Plato’s “main enemy.”
Implicit in Plato’s criticism of poetry was, as Havelock, Ong, and other classicists have shown, a defense of the new technology of writing and the state of mind it encouraged in the reader: logical, rigorous, self-reliant. Plato saw the great intellectual benefits that the alphabet could bring to civilization—benefits that were already apparent in his own writing. “Plato’s philosophically analytical thought,” writes Ong, “was possible only because of the effects that writing was beginning to have on mental processes.”
In the subtly conflicting views of the value of writing expressed in
, we see evidence of the strains created by the transition from an oral to a literary culture. It was, as both Plato and Socrates recognized in their different ways, a shift that was set in motion by the invention of a tool, the alphabet, and that would have profound consequences for our language and our minds.
In a purely oral culture, thinking is governed by the capacity of human memory. Knowledge is what you recall, and what you recall is limited to what you can hold in your mind.
Through the millennia of man’s preliterate history, language evolved to aid the storage of complex information in individual memory and to make it easy to exchange that information with others through speech. “Serious thought,” Ong writes, was by necessity “intertwined with memory systems.”
Diction and syntax became highly rhythmical, tuned to the ear, and information was encoded in common turns of phrase—what we’d today call clichés—to aid memorization. Knowledge was embedded in “poetry,” as Plato defined it, and a specialized class of poet-scholars became the human devices, the flesh-and-blood intellectual technologies, for information storage, retrieval, and transmission. Laws, records, transactions, decisions, traditions—everything that today would be “documented”—in oral cultures had to be, as Havelock says, “composed in formulaic verse” and distributed “by being sung or chanted aloud.”
The oral world of our distant ancestors may well have had emotional and intuitive depths that we can no longer appreciate. McLuhan believed that preliterate peoples must have enjoyed a particularly intense “sensuous involvement” with the world. When we learned to read, he argued, we suffered a “considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterate man or society would experience.”
But intellectually, our ancestors’ oral culture was in many ways a shallower one than our own. The written word liberated knowledge from the bounds of individual memory and freed language from the rhythmical and formulaic structures required to support memorization and recitation. It opened to the mind broad new frontiers of thought and expression. “The achievements of the Western world, it is obvious, are testimony to the tremendous values of literacy,” McLuhan wrote.
Ong, in his influential 1982 study
Orality and Literacy
, took a similar view. “Oral cultures,” he observed, could “produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche.” But literacy “is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.”
The ability to write is “utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials,” Ong concluded. “Writing heightens consciousness.”
In Plato’s time, and for centuries afterward, that heightened consciousness was reserved for an elite. Before the cognitive benefits of the alphabet could spread to the masses, another set of intellectual technologies—those involved in the transcription, production, and distribution of written works—would have to be invented.
hen people first began writing things down, they’d scratch their marks on anything that happened to be lying around—smooth-faced rocks, scraps of wood, strips of bark, bits of cloth, pieces of bone, chunks of broken pottery. Such ephemera were the original media for the written word. They had the advantages of being cheap and plentiful but the disadvantages of being small, irregular in shape, and easily lost, broken, or otherwise damaged. They were suitable for inscriptions and labels, perhaps a brief note or notice, but not much else. No one would think to commit a deep thought or a long argument to a pebble or a potsherd.
The Sumerians were the first to use a specialized medium for writing. They etched their cuneiform into carefully prepared tablets made of clay, an abundant resource in Mesopotamia. They would wash a handful of clay, form it into a thin block, inscribe it with a sharpened reed, and then dry it under the sun or in a kiln. Government records, business correspondence, commercial receipts, and legal agreements were all written on the durable tablets, as were lengthier, more literary works, such as historical and religious stories and accounts of contemporary events. To accommodate the longer pieces of writing, the Sumerians would often number their tablets, creating a sequence of clay “pages” that anticipated the form of the modern book. Clay tablets would continue to be a popular writing medium for centuries, but because preparing, carrying, and storing them were difficult, they tended to be reserved for formal documents written by official scribes. Writing and reading remained arcane talents.
Around 2500 BC, the Egyptians began manufacturing scrolls from the papyrus plants that grew throughout the Nile delta. They would strip fibers from the plants, lay the fibers in a crisscross pattern, and dampen them to release their sap. The resin glued the fibers into a sheet, which was then hammered to form a smooth, white writing surface not all that different from the paper we use today. As many as twenty of the sheets would be glued end to end into long scrolls, and the scrolls, like the earlier clay tablets, would sometimes be arranged in numbered sequences. Flexible, portable, and easy to store, scrolls offered considerable advantages over the much heavier tablets. The Greeks and the Romans adopted scrolls as their primary writing medium, though parchment, made of goat or sheep hide, eventually replaced papyrus as the material of choice in making them.
Scrolls were expensive. Papyrus had to be carted in from Egypt, and turning skins into parchment was a time-consuming job requiring a certain amount of skill. As writing became more common, demand grew for a cheaper option, something that schoolboys could use to take notes and write compositions. That need spurred the development of a new writing device, the wax tablet. It consisted of a simple wooden frame filled with a layer of wax. Letters were scratched into the wax with a new kind of stylus that had, in addition to the sharpened writing tip, a blunt end for scraping the wax clean. Because words could be erased easily from the tablets, students and other writers were able to use them over and over again, making them far more economical than scrolls. Though not a very sophisticated tool, the wax tablet played a major role in turning writing and reading from specialized, formal crafts into casual, everyday activities—for literate citizens, anyway.
The wax tablet was important for another reason. When the ancients wanted an inexpensive way to store or distribute a lengthy text, they would lash a few tablets together with a strip of leather or cloth. These bound tablets, popular in their own right, served as a model for an anonymous Roman artisan who, shortly after the time of Christ, sewed several sheets of parchment between a pair of rigid rectangles of leather to create the first real book. Though a few centuries would pass before the bound book, or codex, supplanted the scroll, the benefits of the technology must have been clear to even its earliest users. Because a scribe could write on both sides of a codex page, a book required much less papyrus or parchment than did a one-sided scroll, reducing the cost of production substantially. Books were also much more compact, making them easier to transport and to conceal. They quickly became the format of choice for publishing early Bibles and other controversial works. Books were easier to navigate too. Finding a particular passage, an awkward task with a long roll of text, became a simple matter of flipping back and forth through a set of pages.
Even as the technology of the book sped ahead, the legacy of the oral world continued to shape the way words on pages were written and read. Silent reading was largely unknown in the ancient world. The new codices, like the tablets and scrolls that preceded them, were almost always read aloud, whether the reader was in a group or alone. In a famous passage in his
, Saint Augustine described the surprise he felt when, around the year AD 380, he saw Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently to himself. “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still,” wrote Augustine. “Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” Baffled by such peculiar behavior, Augustine wondered whether Ambrose “needed to spare his voice, which quite easily became hoarse.”
It’s hard for us to imagine today, but no spaces separated the words in early writing. In the books inked by scribes, words ran together without any break across every line on every page, in what’s now referred to as
. The lack of word separation reflected language’s origins in speech. When we talk, we don’t insert pauses between each word—long stretches of syllables flow unbroken from our lips. It would never have crossed the minds of the first writers to put blank spaces between words. They were simply transcribing speech, writing what their ears told them to write. (Today, when young children begin to write, they also run their words together. Like the early scribes, they write what they hear.) The scribes didn’t pay much attention to the order of the words in a sentence either. In spoken language, meaning had always been conveyed mainly through inflection, the pattern of stresses a speaker places on syllables, and that oral tradition continued to govern writing. In interpreting the writing in books through the early Middle Ages, readers would not have been able to use word order as a signal of meaning. The rules hadn’t been invented yet.
The lack of word separation, combined with the absence of word order conventions, placed an “extra cognitive burden” on ancient readers, explains John Saenger in
Space between Words
, his history of the scribal book.
Readers’ eyes had to move slowly and haltingly across the lines of text, pausing frequently and often backing up to the start of a sentence, as their minds struggled to figure out where one word ended and a new one began and what role each word was playing in the meaning of the sentence. Reading was like working out a puzzle. The brain’s entire cortex, including the forward areas associated with problem solving and decision making, would have been buzzing with neural activity.
The slow, cognitively intensive parsing of text made the reading of books laborious. It was also the reason no one, other than the odd case like Ambrose, read silently. Sounding out the syllables was crucial to deciphering the writing. Those constraints, which would seem intolerable to us today, didn’t matter much in a culture still rooted in orality. “Because those who read relished the mellifluous metrical and accentual patterns of pronounced text,” writes Saenger, “the absence of interword space in Greek and Latin was not perceived to be an impediment to effective reading, as it would be to the modern reader, who strives to read swiftly.”
Besides, most literate Greeks and Romans were more than happy to have their books read to them by slaves.
NOT UNTIL WELL
after the collapse of the Roman Empire did the form of written language finally break from the oral tradition and begin to accommodate the unique needs of readers. As the Middle Ages progressed, the number of literate people—cenobites, students, merchants, aristocrats—grew steadily, and the availability of books expanded. Many of the new books were of a technical nature, intended not for leisurely or scholarly reading but for practical reference. People began to want, and to need, to read quickly and privately. Reading was becoming less an act of performance and more a means of personal instruction and improvement. That shift led to the most important transformation of writing since the invention of the phonetic alphabet. By the start of the second millennium, writers had begun to impose rules of word order on their work, fitting words into a predictable, standardized system of syntax. At the same time, beginning in Ireland and England and then spreading throughout the rest of western Europe, scribes started dividing sentences into individual words, separated by spaces. By the thirteenth century,
was largely obsolete, for Latin texts as well as those written in the vernacular. Punctuation marks, which further eased the work of the reader, began to become common too. Writing, for the first time, was aimed as much at the eye as the ear.
It would be difficult to overstate the significance of these changes. The emergence of word order standards sparked a revolution in the structure of language—one that, as Saenger notes, “was inherently antithetical to the ancient quest for metrical and rhythmical eloquence.”
The placing of spaces between words alleviated the cognitive strain involved in deciphering text, making it possible for people to read quickly, silently, and with greater comprehension. Such fluency had to be learned. It required complex changes in the circuitry of the brain, as contemporary studies of young readers reveal. The accomplished reader, Maryanne Wolf explains, develops specialized brain regions geared to the rapid deciphering of text. The areas are wired “to represent the important visual, phonological, and semantic information and to retrieve this information at lightning speed.” The visual cortex, for example, develops “a veritable collage” of neuron assemblies dedicated to recognizing, in a matter of milliseconds, “visual images of letters, letter patterns, and words.”
As the brain becomes more adept at decoding text, turning what had been a demanding problem-solving exercise into a process that is essentially automatic, it can dedicate more resources to the interpretation of meaning. What we today call “deep reading” becomes possible. By “altering the neurophysiological process of reading,” word separation “freed the intellectual faculties of the reader,” Saenger writes; “even readers of modest intellectual capacity could read more swiftly, and they could understand an increasing number of inherently more difficult texts.”
Readers didn’t just become more efficient. They also became more attentive. To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to “lose oneself” in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Neuroscientists have discovered primitive “bottom-up mechanisms” in our brains that, as the authors of a 2004 article in
put it, “operate on raw sensory input, rapidly and involuntarily shifting attention to salient visual features of potential importance.”
What draws our attention most of all is any hint of a change in our surroundings. “Our senses are finely attuned to change,” explains Maya Pines of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Stationary or unchanging objects become part of the scenery and are mostly unseen.” But as soon as “something in the environment changes, we need to take notice because it might mean danger—or opportunity.”
Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food. For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear.
To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T. S. Eliot, in
, would call “the still point of the turning world.” They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another. They had to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter their instinctive distractedness, applying greater “top-down control” over their attention.
“The ability to focus on a single task, relatively uninterrupted,” writes Vaughan Bell, a research psychologist at King’s College London, represents a “strange anomaly in the history of our psychological development.”
Many people had, of course, cultivated a capacity for sustained attention long before the book or even the alphabet came along. The hunter, the craftsman, the ascetic—all had to train their brains to control and concentrate their attention. What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning. The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.