Oral vs. Print: The Previous Role of Text

In Chapter 2 of An Introduction to Book History, the focus is determining what the role of texts were in the past, understanding what changed, and establishing the new role of text and print works. Finkelstein and McCleery describe this major shift in textual purpose as one hugely impacted by cultural practice. Specifically focusing on Western European society, the challenges experienced by the two groups; the established oral community and the developing written, literary community. The difference between print works and written work was also established within Chapter 2 “From Orality to Literacy”, meaning print works reached a larger audience and written work was more local.

Up to this point in history, the purpose of written work was to be read aloud. Texts were meant to be shared and ‘felt’. This would dramatically influence the writing style, voice, and language that would be seen in written works at this point. As mentioned in the example on page 38 of An Introduction to Book History, the behaviors of St. Augustine in 383 AD was unheard of; he read in silence, alone, with his eyes only. It was also explained on page 35, how the transition from oral to written culture was accelerated by the new availability of materials that could be readily used for creating texts. These new technologies were also a major factor in the transition to written culture. Parchment, paper and codex really helped preserve these new texts, as elaborated on page 36. 

Most interesting to me was the fact that the oral communities main argument, (or one of the big arguments), was that the written text would give others more knowledge and coincidentally, power. They simply believed that by creating written text that would be used in different cultures, with equal access, would allow others to gain the secret knowledge that orators contained and they would have access to it without the orators control. 

I was happy to see the chapter conclude with the statement “Such issues faded as individuals and institutions capitalized on the opportunities for using writing to reach a wider audience.”, directly referring to the arguments of the oral community and the contemporary supporters, page 43. This part was important to me because it is important to understand how reaching the masses only helps to create a new universal level of knowledge. It didn’t worsen the world, but bettered it, contrary to the beliefs of the oral community. By utilizing the new reach of the book, social behavior was adjusted as well as the styles presented in text. No more was writing limited to being spoken aloud, but a new ‘genre’ of book was born. 

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2 thoughts on “Oral vs. Print: The Previous Role of Text

  1. Your statement about how reaching the masses aids in the creation of “a new universal level of knowledge” seems to be very important in the context of your post and the Ch. 2 reading. All these changes have happened in terms of reading and writing and many people had a difficult time accepting them, yet it added so much to society as a whole, and these practices in general. Your statements become very applicable when looking at new forms of writing today. When you think about texting, there are many people in older generations that think it is ruining the English language. People seem to be more open to it now, although there are undoubtedly still strong rejections. It’s interesting to consider what people will think generations from now about texting as a form of writing, and how it affected our society.

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