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Books are not art. The oral tradition is art.

A while back, Roger Ebert got into hot water with video game lovers when he declared that video games were no art. And there were a lot of arguments on both sides. Similarly, as long as movies have been made out of books, there have been arguments that the books were far better than the movies, and plenty of times they have been right. But a lot of times, it comes down to lovers of an older medium being unwilling to embrace a new medium. And I bet that way back when books were starting to get popular, maybe in Gutenberg’s lifetime, there was a big resistance from people invested in the oral tradition. “You don’t read The Odyssey! You get an experienced storyteller to sing it to you!”

Let’s play devil’s advocate here and take the side of the oral tradition. We’ll ignore the good qualities of books and just take it the way the storyteller would see it. What do you lose when you go to books? You lose the performance of a good storyteller, who has his own distinctive style and brings the stories to life in real time. The reader only has the resources of his own imagination; the audience member at a performance can feed off the storyteller. And with books, you lose the spontaneity and the ability of the story to change. With a book, a storyteller records the story only once, and then it becomes more or less set in stone, so the storyteller must aspire to get the wording perfect. The story cannot evolve. It cannot change. It cannot be reinterpreted in fresh new ways. It cannot differ every time you hear it. And so it must get stale. Furthermore, the talents of the storytellers go to waste as no one listens to their performances anymore. What becomes of them? And the same is true of troubadour songs, which are passed on from musician to musician. If they become set in stone, they can not evolve, and they too become stale.

Can you imagine a future where people read The Odyssey, or the works of Shakespeare, instead of having them performed to them? It is unthinkable.

Now the question to mull over, and it isn’t difficult to answer, is what aspects of the oral tradition have we regained with the advent of movies?

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