I consider language to be the richest gift we as humans enjoy. It goes way beyond simple communication. Words themselves possess a certain power – they can transform the emotional landscape – create, destroy, caress – or pound someone senseless with the accumulated muscle of a thousand fists. We treat words carelessly in American society. Words and their applications are often considered trite and disposable, less human necessity and more French fry. The richness – the pure sensual pleasure that can derive from language craft has been demoted – kicked to the curb along with music as an unnecessary art – not essential to the continuation and promulgation of narrowly defined and increasingly jingoistic American standards and ideals.
Is it that we no longer read for pleasure anymore?
Frankly, I don’t understand any of this. Language and books are for me inextricably linked. From the moment I learned to read, I haunted my local library like a revenant, decimating the children’s section in no time, reading and re-reading favorite passages and books, hungry for much more than the knowledge they provided. It was the words themselves that held me rapt – the sensuous glide of alliteration, the tingling suspense and pride of accomplishment ferreting out definitions provided – letter after letter lining up to create images that filled my mind with a kind of song – blotting out the emotional carnage that composed my everyday life.
I was blessed with a librarian who guided me through those books usually reserved for an adult audience – Wibberly and his fantastical Duchy of Grand Fenwick, Lawrence’s poetical visions of snakes and light, Pope Julius and his contentious relationship with the genius that was Michelangelo, Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw and his proto-historical theorems. I was floating in a sea filled with the light of human thought, and I didn’t want to leave. At home, whatever I was reading would have to be taken out of my hand and the lamp turned off. Books equaled heaven, you see; or at least what I imagined heaven to be. It was the words – plump and purple like plums – thick, sweet and satisfying – hell – sometimes I would forget to eat! And the smell! Oh God, I loved it – musty and ancient – like summertime dust. I would run my fingers over the spine while I read, doodling in the margins with my fingernail, rubbing the thick pages over the ridges in my fingers so I could feel the slight nap from broken fibers. Reading was a thoroughly visceral experience.
Imagine a table covered with food, rich and diverse, there for the taking should any so desire. That’s how I see words and language – full, bold, spicy – scented with everything our world has to offer. So why, in God’s name, do so many people prefer the partially digested? It is ennui? Or are they so bloody lazy that, like Frank Herbert’s Harkonen bogymen, they prefer filters rather than gaining it for themselves? Why let some other person tell you what something says, or how to interpret it? Why not just open the damn thing and read it for yourself? Try it sometime – you just might like it! We judge books in this society, you know – parse them out – assign labels like supermarket vegetables. Sometimes those labels are tacked on due to the author’s penchant for press: Bushnell = chick-lit; or ability to attract unwanted attention: Rushdie = controversy. Sometimes the label describes: Rowling = empire; King = scary. Mostly, we condense our literature into comfortably digestible bits and pieces, cliff-note slim and instantly ready for that all-important close-up with Mr. DeMile. Whatever it has morphed into, reading has long since ceased to be about the words.
And it should be! Words lend color to emotion – it isn’t just vocabulary – it’s the ability to fully communicate with our fellow human beings. Think about it. Think about how you use language. How important being concisely understood is to you. A child uses the basics – hot, cold, angry, hurt; as we grow so does our ability to distinguish between fine emotions. We need words to help us convey those important, distinguishable, slivers of thought. That language, the very letters and words we select come from exposure. You can’t know what `essential’ means, if you have no context for it. Reading provides that elemental link between thought and language. You know, I am afraid we are stepping back toward a strictly oral tradition. People parroting only what they hear – no originality, no interest or ability to craft thought using only letters and imagination. There was a time when the world was viewed as flat, like blank paper – if you weren’t careful, you could easily roll off. Today I think it’s the people who are flat – and the world that keeps rolling away from them.