Living Language and Dead Reckoning: Navigating Oral and Written Traditions

Living Language and Dead Reckoning, by J. Edward Chamberlin

Living Language and Dead Reckoning

Navigating Oral and Written Traditions

by J. Edward Chamberlin


  • Autumn 2006
  • ISBN 978-1-55380-037-8
  • ebook ISBN 978-1-55380-398-0
  • PDF ISBN 978-1-55380-399-7
  • 5-3/4″ x 9″ Trade Paperback, 36 pages
  • Literary Criticism

In this highly personal essay, Ted Chamberlin asks some old, old questions such as “why do we need stories and songs?” Turning frequently to First Nations people, he looks at their culture and asks what it means to listen. In response, he notes that we take great pleasure in the comforts of narration, of finding our way within a story, a kind of “dead reckoning” out at sea when the fog rolls in and we experience “being almost lost.”

Much of the essay focuses on people from around the world who have often been described as pre-literate. Chamberlin takes issue with this view and argues that such people “read” a whole host of signs and stories, and that in understanding how this reading takes place we can understand something of our own habits of reading and listening. Whereas scholars such as McLuhan and Ong have claimed that such cultures are “imprisoned in the present,” Chamberlin points out that this is demonstrable nonsense. All cultures are both oral and written, he argues, and knowledge comes from both listening and reading.

Employing his own position as a “teller of tales” he asks whether we believe the teller or the tale, and draws attention to the importance of not only the storyteller but also the community of listeners. For Chamberlin, Living Language and Dead Reckoning, the publication of the Garnett Sedgewick annual lecture for 2005 at the University of British Columbia, is the first step towards a “history of listening.”

“In this insightful, entertaining and at times wistful essay, Ted Chamberlin equates literacy with ‘dead reckoning,’ and urges us to reconsider the many advantages of orality, which include a sense of community and the presence of the teller of tales.”
— Dr. Gernot Wieland, Head, English Department, University of British Columbia

Garnett Sedgewick Memorial Lectures:



“The music of [Chamberlin’s] prose invites — demands — close listening.”
Canadian Literature