Reading Romance: Literacy, Psychology, and Malory's le Morte D'Arthur

By Margaret Dumais Svogun | Go to book overview
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Chapter 2

“Speaking to the Eyes”

In “The Consequences of Literacy”, authors Jack Goody and Ian Watt state that

the notion of representing a sound by a graphic symbol is ... so stupefying a leap of the imagination that what is remarkable is not so much that it happened relatively late in human history but rather that it ever happened at all. 1

Yet in raising the question “why do we read?” we so automatically take for granted the widespread ability (or at least the widespread opportunities for acquiring the ability) to understand the “notion of a sound represented by a graphic symbol” as to be virtually unconscious of the underlying assumption. Reading and writing, however, are, as noted, relatively quite recent accomplishments in human history, and Watt and Goody are not alone in their awe: in nearly every work which concerns itself with the origins of language, literacy or the invention of printing, and regardless of its primary orientation—whether critical, sociological, psychological, educational or purely historical—at least a moment's notice is paid to the sheer revolutionary nature of man's development of the ability to write and read.

Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan, who awakened popular public awareness of the effects of various modern media, says, in an early work on typographic culture, that

given the phonetic alphabet with its abstraction of meaning from sound and the translation of sound into a visual code ... men were at grips with an experience that transformed them. 2

Walter J. Ong, who has researched and written widely on the differences between literate and pre-literate cultures, says that “writing, the commitment of words to space, enlarges the potentiality of language almost beyond measure and restructures thought” 3, while Julian Jaynes

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