After inhaling five or six Discworld novels, which are great fun but sort of the literary equivalent of a big tub of flavored popcorn, I needed a change of pace. On my literature shelves I found a paperback (picked up at a library used book sale, no doubt) of essays by George Orwell. Orwell is consistently insightful and articulate. Not all of the topics in the collection were of interest to me — I skipped the essay on the English national character — but his reflections on the Spanish Civil War, on Gandhi, and on his years as a boy at a boarding school are fascinating.
After finishing the essays, I browsed around on the shelves and opened up my yellowing copy of Understanding Media, by Marshall MacLuhan. Fifty years on, MacLuhan’s basic incoherence is laid bare. He had a few good ideas, granted — but today it’s easy to see his eyes spinning around like mad little pinwheels. Ideas cannon off the walls with no more than an occasional nod in the direction of reality. The book is unreadable.
Tonight a friend on Facebook mentioned an article in the NY Times about the re-emergence (in a heavily modified and less extravagant form) of the Whorf hypothesis. The article makes a pretty good case, or so it would appear. But then, Whorf made what looked like a pretty good case too, except that it turned out the gears were stripped on his research data and his deductions were leaking motor oil all over the driveway. Like MacLuhan, Whorf was a new age romantic, and spun a solid academic reputation out of gossamer.
Whorf’s idea was that the language you speak shapes your thoughts in basic ways. In musing on the question of how language may influence thought, I remembered a 1966 novel by Samuel Delany called Babel-17. It’s about a booby-trapped language, and is specifically a speculation based on Whorf’s ideas. I have half a dozen Delany novels in my collection, including that one, and he’s a pretty interesting writer. So maybe that will be the next brass ring I grab as I spin around the carousel.
Or maybe that Margaret Atwood novel I quoted in yesterday’s blog entry. I started it, once upon a time, but I don’t think I ever finished it. Or maybe I’ll re-read some Borges. Or maybe it’s time to tackle Of Human Bondage — again, a library used book sale find that has been gathering dust in my collection for at least 20 years. Or one of the real treasures in my collection, a fat volume of plays called The Chief Elizabethan Playwrights Other Than Shakespeare. Probably close to unreadable without a dictionary of archaisms at my elbow, but I’ll bet there’s some good stuff in there.
When really smart people choose words carefully, the world becomes a richer place. Without Gutenberg, of course, all of those well-chosen words would be for naught. I love this quote from the Wikipedia article on Gutenberg: “His invention of mechanical movable type printing … is widely regarded as the most important event of the modern period.” Think about that. Everything that has happened in the last 500 years sprang, directly or indirectly, from Gutenberg’s invention.
Yeah, I need to read more books.