On what we’ve lost, and what we’ve gained

I just made a post elsewhere online I wanted to share here. I’d talked about how we’d lost a lot, as a culture, when we had mass-accessible written material (sometime after the printing press: I tend to think it’s around 1600-1650, when you start getting lots more broadsheets and other materials that are inexpensive enough that most people can get a look at them if they like.)

Someone else in that conversation went “Hey, wait. You’re a librarian and you’re saying this?” And she’s quite right, but I had to explain where we’re coming from. Here’s my explanation:

I explain:

I think we lost stuff. I think we lost *big* stuff, with the loss of a commonly held oral culture and the skills needed to maintain it.

I think we gained a lot with written culture, and on the whole, those gains are worth the losses. But it’s not all benefit, either, and more to the point, we’re comparing different kinds of loss and benefit.

(Erm. Take an older couple. The husband dies, leaving his wife of decades a widow. The same year, one of their kids has their first grandchild. There is a lot of wonderful stuff in a new baby in the family – but that new baby is not the same as the lost spouse and doesn’t replace the same functions, even. There’s still a loss that should, imho, be grieved and honored and remembered, even in the midst of all the cool new stuff that comes with the new potential.)

I’ll give you a personal example, too. My father was a professor specialising in ancient Greek theatre, and he spent about one or two weekends a month travelling to do one-man performances of his own translations of those plays using a marionette theatre (which more or less duplicates, when done in a college auditorium sized space, the amount of detail that your average ancient Greek amphitheatre-going person would have seen.)

Anyway: he was able to hold 3-5 plays in active, letter-perfect memory, and about another dozen in nearly-perfect state at any given time. He invested time in relearning them (he’d recite to himself while walking the dog: we had the most classically educated canines on the planet, probably.) But mostly, they were in his brain.

That gave him a *tremendous* amount of fluency in the subject – down to being able to cite quotes word for word when teaching on that play in class. There’s a story one of his colleagues told at his memorial of him walking down the aisle in his large lecture class, asking one of his grad students “What’s the play today?”, getting the answer, walking up on stage (having not even paused his stride), and teaching for 90 minutes on that play with no reference to notes or reference material. And it was a brillant, coherent, enjoyable lecture that his students remembered for years. And that was normal for him – he could do the same thing with other subjects he’d spent a lot of time with (and I spent my childhood with him telling me Greek mythology on every walk too and from school.)

I can’t do that. I can’t *begin* to do that. Now, some of that is that where he was a specialist, I’m a generalist (which is a lot of why I’m a librarian. I know tons of things about tons of things, but I have that kind of deep running knowledge about only a few: my religious path and related topics are one of them.)

But some of it is because he grew up and lived in a world where that was what there was: there were the words and what they meant, and he devoted a *vast* amount of his time to living deeply in the words as they were meant to be performed. He read, of course, but he also spent far more time than I do living with the text as performed work, not words on the page.

Now, I have some of the same skills in terms of internal information management and being able to pull out useful bits from what’s inside my head (and I invest some of the same kind of time in cultivating them: actually plan to stat some of that this weekend, because a conversation at work today got me curious about the actual breakdown of how I do generalised information gathering.) But in me, it manifests totally differently, because I’m so much a child of the internet age, and not a child of the oral learning and repetition age (as my father, who grew up in 30s and 40s British schools was)

And I’ll tell you here and now: I frankly envy and desire what my father was able to do. And the world we live in no longer supports it – and I suspect makes it pretty close to impossible, unless you are living a very specifically designed life. That’s a loss, even though there’s stuff I can do that would have amazed my father (and does amaze my mother.)

And a few more thoughts, not in my response to her:

I think we’re a better world, overall, for more information. Sharing information gives people the power and the tools to make more of their own choices, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Oral information, is, unfortunately, locked inside someone’s head until they let it out, and the skills and practice needed to maintain it are hardly trivial to maintain.

But at the same time, I do think we’ve lost things, as those skills in oral memory disappear. We can live without them – but we’re changed, and the world is changed for having fewer of them about.

(This is, arguably, part of why I am so incredibly drawn to small intimate ritual groups: in such groups, one can have the broader context of the great story of someone’s life and desires and dreams, without having to get all of it in one shot. And a small group can hold, together, the memory of the group in a way a larger group can’t generally manage. It won’t always happen, but it’s a lot more feasible than in a group of 50, or 100, or 2000.)

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  • Waldfrau

    Nice to read you had such an amazing father. :)

    There’s something about myths in EstĂ©s’ ‘Woman Who Run with Wolves’ that striked me as important. She says there’s an own magic of retelling myths when the myths are told by the oral teller with a backround of life experiences connected to the myths.