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    Take Orally. May Cause Side Effects.

    From a recent question in Ask Figaro:

    Dear Figaro—I teach a Digital Rhetoric course (and, naturally, I introduce the topic of rhetoric through your book). I’d like to hear from you about where you think that rhetoric is headed given the technological advances and the many new media available to us for rhetoric? Do the internet, TV and cell phones (“smart phones”) lead us toward orality again and away from a literate culture? What are your thoughts?
    Dr. Sig

    Dear Doc,

    Let’s look at the facts. Newspaper and magazine readerships are down. In 1995, the average American read at least the beginning of 10 books; the number has shrunk to 4 today, with more than a third of adults reading no books at all. Our political debates are conducted orally, through sound bites, ad campaigns, and televised debates. Business decisions get made orally, through PowerPoint presentations, teleconferencing, and face-to-face meetings. Yes, we do have emails, and blogs like this one, but as I argue in my book, those media count as quasi-oral. (See chapter 22, “The Jumbotron Blunder.”)

    Figaro isn’t thrilled about the trend. He’s hawking a book for one thing. Plus, we lose the depth of thought that reading enables. Good or bad, though, it’s reality: we have already switched from a written to an oral society. Schools and colleges must follow your fine example and foster oral sophistication through the teaching of rhetoric.

    But then, anachronism is one of the many charms of the liberal arts. During the American Revolution, pamphlets and newspapers led the charge; yet colleges still taught as if the printing press hadn’t been invented.

    So give them time. They’ll catch on in a century or so.


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    Reader Comments (2)

    Dear Fig:

    I'm dubious about statistics that say no one (or almost no one) reads books any more. What I know is that more people are buying and reading more books, reading more diverse books, and keeping the habit of reading later in life, than they ever have before. That's per capita, not absolute. Also, access to bookstores, especially well-stocked bookstores, is vastly commoner than it was in my youth -- and that's not even counting online booksellers like Amazon.

    It has never been easier to buy a copy of an old classic, or just a good book that's gone out of print. Check out AbeBooks and see for yourself. So many secondhand books are being bought and sold via the internet that secondhand books sold in brick-and-mortar stores have noticably fallen in price.

    Audiobooks are a small fraction of the market, but their sales are climbing sharply, and there's a strong demand for unabridged versions.

    The hardcopy versions of magazines and newspapers show declining readership, but their online versions get so much traffic that they're increasingly turning to advertising rather than subscriptions to pay their bills.

    Millions of people are spending their free time (and a good chunk of their Monday workday) reading and writing on the web. Not all of it is good, but the same was true of the books and magazines they read before the internet came along. Writing done by non-professionals is on average considerably better than it was back-when.

    In short, literacy is not on the decline.
    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa Nielsen Hayden
    Nothing would make Figaro happier if that's true, Teresa. Where did you get your stats?

    September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro

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