I read an interesting article in Geist magazine recently that explained how Socrates was dead set against the written word. He felt that without the interpretation of an instructor, the nuances of meaning would be lost; anyone could read anything and totally take it the wrong way. Plus, he felt that the act of writing things down would make humans, as a whole, mentally lazy; they’d lose the power of memory because they’d know they could just look stuff up, instead of having to remember it.
It took a long, long time, but the internet almost seems to be proving Socrates right. Now, with so much information available at our fingertips, it’s overwhelming to even try to remember it all. Everything from the answers to science questions to lists of just the right word to recipes to my own to-do list is stored online, and I can look it up whenever I like. Thus, very little lives on in my own brain – my memory has gone external.
At the same time, I read another notice online about a brand new museum that opened in May in Chicago – the America Writers’ Museum. It’s a celebration of those wordsmiths who captured the American experience – and thus influenced the whole world of literature. It’s about Hemingway and Kerouac and Emily Dickinson, but it’s also a generic celebration of what it means to be a writer. There are exhibits that are just celebrations of words, that attempt to show visitors what it is like to be an author, and to encourage everyone to try their hand at the written word.
I like it that such a place exists. I’d like to go there.
So which is it: written words good, or written words bad?
There’s no easy answer. I’ve read that a writer is someone who writes – not necessarily someone who is published or paid for their work, but someone who processes the world by writing it down. People with diaries, or blogs, or avid letter writers. People who, when something exciting happens, are already composing a description of it in their heads, real time. You know who you are, you internal monologists, you who can’t sleep until something is written down where the beauty of it can be safely captured, safely preserved. You’re the writers.
I have to say, it’d be a sad world for me without writing. It’s where I sort out my thoughts, where I process. Socrates can stuff it, as far as I’m concerned.
But perhaps there is something to the idea of the oral tradition, and the idea of a working memory giving us greater mental abilities and flexibility. Maybe writing things down does make us dumber, in a way.
But I prefer to argue that it just clears space for new thoughts, and new ideas, and new stories. So I’ll keep writing things down, and celebrating the writers, and moving on to creating the new, I think.