I recently became interested in media in their own right. I tried reading McLuhan, but found him to be dazzling and frustrating - he would drop these little sound bites and then move on. I wanted a more in depth exploration of media.
McLuhan brought to my attention how media are not just passive carriers of content, but powerfully shape and influence it. Even more startling, he stated that media shape consciousness itself - they change the very people who use it. The tail wags the dog.
McLuhan's probes have their strength in galvanizing thought, not in the patient, careful arguing of a point. It's in this context I found Ong exactly what I was hoping/looking for. He tries to evoke an understanding of what is what like to live in a culture that had never known writing. He discusses how this affects each aspect of life, how it structures personality and identity, community, etc. (Not surprisingly, Ong was a student of McLuhan.)Then he discusses the shift to literacy, and how it affected identity as well.
I am used to academics writing in such a dense, convoluted style. Happily, this was completely absent from Ong's style. He manages to drop little insights about without belaboring them.
The great thing about a book like this for me - a layman - is that he manages to comment on apparently trivial, mundane features of daily life like calendars, lists, clocks, title pages in books - and show how they really manifest these huge, typically invisible trends in the changing of how we think about life and ourselves.
I loved this book - I will certainly read his earlier articles, since Orality and Literacy is mostly a summing of all prior research (as of 1982).
I just finished it - but the weaknesses I felt were that toward the end, as he tries to discuss print (not just writing) specifically, it becomes a bit harder to follow, since much erudition is presumed at this point. It seemed less thought out, less imaginative here than the start and middle of the book. He himself states his treatment of print will be comparatively cursory, though.
I also wanted more concrete anthropological examples, since ultimately all discussion needs to be grounded in actual case studies of how oral cultures were affected by literacy. But this was not quite the slant Ong book. It isn't supposed to be social science, although it does incorporate some field research. (He's whetted my appetite for it - this is where I will turn next.)
Media studies like Ong, Havelock, McLuhan help to provide a fresh take on what so much literary criticism and philosphical postmodernism obscures and confuses over - the idea of the 'self.' A great book.
Ong doesn't pretend to have the last word on this topic. But it is a thought provoking, straightforward discussion of ideas that tend to be very abstract, remote, and certainly not mainstream. It added insight into an area I thought I knew very well.