The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Memory Loss and Death


Digital ID: 465215. Work with schools, teachers' reference room : a teacher finds project materials, 1938.. 1938

Digital ID: 465215. Work with schools, teachers' reference room : a teacher finds project materials, 1938.. 1938


As a class, we are all aware that Ong’s chapter 4 is a discussion focused on the effects of writing on consciousness, outlining some characteristics of writing within a brief history.  After I had selected this chapter for the commentary, a second reading redirected my focus from the initial concepts of writing as a form of technology and the concept of writing as “contumacious” (Ong, 2002, pg.78) towards a slightly different focus on two concepts that was dispersed yet combined throughout the chapter.   These topics stirred ample thought and I feel they deserve more critical attention.  These ideas are identified in a continuous intertwined fashion including a passage as Ong states “One of the most startling paradoxes inherent in writing is its close association with death.  This association is suggested in Plato’s charge that writing is inhuman, think-like and that it destroys memory.” (Ong, pg. 80)  This statement provoked two divergent stems of thinking; the first being that ‘memory is destroyed’ and the second being the association of death to writing.  While the history and the effects of writing on a society has not held a prominent point in my academic career until this moment, I would never have believed nor have imagined that writing could be associated with either death or memory loss.   

 Memory loss

 The concept that writing destroys memory appears to be a little presumptuous as the very least.  Memory, much like the scraps of paper we store in our pockets are meant to be discarded when no longer required, resulting in “customary law, trimmed of material no longer of use, which automatically always up to date and thus youthful”. (Ong, pg. 97)  While it is necessary to have an appreciation regarding the lack of research into the effects of writing at the time of Plato’s statement, research today “suggests that people who will develop dementia may be able to delay memory loss by daily activities that stimulate the brain such as reading, writing and card games.” (Dementia Matters)  The human mind was meant to disregard information that was considered not relevant or needed for current existence.  Writing has created not memory loss, but the ability of a culture to preserve what would naturally be lost; resulting in an artificial reversing of the natural memory loss process.  


 The second concept which Ong mentions is that of death.  According to The Oxford University Press death is defined as:

1 [C] the fact of sb dying or being killed:

2 [U] the end of life; the state of being dead:

3 [U] ~ of sth the permanent end or destruction of sth:

4 (also Death) [U] (literary) the power that destroys life, imagined as human in form (Oxford University Press, 2005)

Considering the aforementioned definition, the association of death to writing is a difficult notion to digest.   Writing has the ability to immortalize the writer, to transcend time and culture and to persist even when the culture that created the actual writing no longer exists.  As Ong writes “most books extant today were written by persons now dead.”  (Ong, pg. 101)  Ancient texts such as the rongorongo from Easter Island evidence this statement.  These ancient texts are a writing system in with a combination of ideographic and phonetic.  (The British Museum)  While these texts are not fully deciphered and may never be, the culture that created the text is long gone, but their legacy lives on in their writing and the interest that they generated.

 The intertwined concepts of memory loss and death which are a result of writing create many doubts.  This may be due to the fact that I belong to a culture where writing is integrated in all aspects of daily life.   Just considering that we can store in artificial means, (not the mind) a wide variety of information, ensures that death can not occur.  The life of the information, stories and memories will never die unless our capacity to write and learn to read those writings ceases to exist. 



 Dementia Matters.  (2009).  Daily Activities that stimulate the brain may delay memory loss.   Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

Ong, W.J., (2002).  Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the Word.  New York (NY): Routledge.   

Oxford University Press, (2005). Death.  Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

 The British Museum.  (Unknown).  Wood tablet with rongorongo inscription.  Retrieved online from the World Wide Web:

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:24 pm }

Yet my students prefer to use oral or visual formats when presenting thir work.

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