The magic of reading

Jumble_02Can you make sense of those lines in the image to the right? Of course not. They’re deconstructed from the letters of a simple, one-syllable word and randomly re-arranged. It’s just four letters, but their component parts are not arranged in the proper order, so they seem like meaningless lines and squiggles. We’ve not been taught to assemble them into a structure that makes sense to our brains. Yet we’re quite capable of assigning meaning and context to abstract forms, if they’re assembled properly.

The order that we prefer those lines and curves to be in is arbitrary – the association of any particular line or curved with another piece is simply a convenience we all agree to use. Other cultures, other languages have a different agreement, equally arbitrary. The lines that form a lamed in the Hebrew alphabet don’t look anything like the lines we use to make an “L” but they get translated into that sound in the reader’s brain because that’s what the reader was raised to expect. Similarly, a Cyrillic “L” looks different from both English and Hebrew, yet performs the same function in the language. When a non-Hebrew or non-Cyrillic reader sees them, they recognize the lines, but there is no neurological association to tell that reader what they mean.*

Jumble_01When those lines and curves are again aligned differently, they offer a hint of order. English readers can more easily recognize some of the forms, even if they don’t always coalesce into specific letters. You might be able to guess at some of the letters, maybe even all., but most likely the word itself remains obscure unless you put a lot of cogitative effort into solving the puzzle.

Yet even if you can’t figure it out, our brains are remarkably agile in that they are eager to build associations from even the smallest clues. That’s how pareidolia happens – described on Wikipedia as, “…a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists (e.g. in random data).” But while it makes for imagined faces of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, it also helps us identify things that are not in the exact shape and form that we expect.
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Malory then and now

Caxton's MaloryI recently started reading Malory in the original – that is, the language that Caxton printed in. Not the typeface Caxton used, since that would be harder to read, but rendered in a modern serif face. Caxton initially used black letter type (aka gothic) – pretty much all the early printers used it, although each printer had his own dies and styles. However, he did move to a more easily-read, more-rounded typeface by around 1490, a few years after he printed Malory’s book. Still, the early typefaces used in all incunabula take a bit more mental effort to decipher because they are not as familiar to us as our modern letter forms and often the type is set more densely than we would today, often without the same punctuation and the paragraph breaks we use today.

Malory’s themes are remarkably modern: heroism, faith, love, sex, betrayal, scheming,  politics, war… the stuff of life. Change from swords to light sabres and you’d have a scifi novel or space opera; to six-shooters and you’d have a western. That’s one of the reasons to read him: to remind ourselves that while technology advances, humans are still motivated by the same emotions and behaviour that have been around since the Stone Age.

I’m quite enjoying the reading, especially when it makes me stop and think about a word that has caused me to stumble. Not to mention the story is one I know well, and have read in many forms and seen in movies, too. Perhaps the best known and most readable of the works he inspired is T.H. White’s Once and Future King, which I’ve read at least twice. It’s one of the few books that have moved me to tears.

William Caxton was, as you know, England’s first printer, but he was also a translator and editor with a passion for sharing what he considered the greatest English literature. And he was also England’s first retail bookseller. The first book he printed at his Westminster press, was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in 1476. In all, he printed more than 100 books.

He printed Malory’s famous work, Le Morte d’Arthur (aka Le Morte Darthur) in 1485, and of that first printing only two copies survive. Malory’s story proved a bestseller, and created a passion among readers for the Arthurian Romances and the tales of the Knights of the Round Table that continues today. It influenced later writers like Tennyson, Twain, T.H. White and Steinbeck (and, yes, Monty Python…).

There were five editions printed before 1500. Caxton’s successor, Wynkyn de Worde, reprinted Le Morte D’Arthur in the first illustrated edition, 1498. That’s a beautiful work even today.
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 Writers and reading

Chicago Manual of Style, 2017 - 17th edn.This post is about, and for writers, for reporters and editors, for book authors and editors, magazine editors, feature writers, layout artists, copy editors and anyone who either fancies themselves one of these, or has the curious desire to become one (curious because, at least for freelancers, it often involves spending more money on books than you get in income…). If you aren’t in that company, you should probably read something else, maybe just watch TV, because it’s going to be boring and a little pedantic. It’s about the books writers and editors read – or should read – to stay at the forefront of their game.

But also we read these books because we derive a basic joy from them. Strange as it sounds, it’s true. Like any hobbyist, aficionado or enthusiast, we like to read about the subjects dear to our hearts: grammar, punctuation, style, language, vocabulary, etymology, style, writing… reading about them isn’t just a trek through known territory: in many of them we find new landscapes to explore, new arguments to debate, new words, new uses to test.

Yes, writers read, those worth the name, anyway. Just like doctors, mechanics, chefs, wine makers, musicians, astronomers, naturalists, electricians and every other profession reads. Even politicians read – aside, of course, from our own Block on Collingwood Council, who despise the activity. Reading is part of the ongoing self-education process everyone who gives even the slightest damn about their work continues to pursue. It’s part of the continued goal of competence.

Let me stop here and say that if you know of a so-called writer, editor, communications officer, PR specialist or reporter who doesn’t regularly read books on grammar, language, style or structure, or don’t regularly look things up in these guides, who don’t have them at hand in their work area, they don’t deserve the description. They are, to paraphrase Truman Capote, mere typists. They do not do justice to their profession and should look for more suitable employment. Walmart greeters are in demand, I hear.

And, no, age and experience don’t mean you can stop learning. In fact, both contribute to lifelong bad writing habits that only remedial study can correct. Since language is fluid, it requires attention to keep up with its fluctuations and changes, its mood swings in permissive and restrictive usage. Unless you keep up with it, you start to come across as ossified, archaic and fusty. That’s when writers need to retire.

A writer who doesn’t read books on language and grammar is like a sommelier who doesn’t drink, not even taste the wine. It’s like a pilot who refuses to board a plane. A hockey player who doesn’t skate. It’s an oxymoron.
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Fowler for the 21st Century

Fowler's latest editionOn the desk of every writer, every reporter, every editor, every PR director and every communications officer is a small library of reference books. A good dictionary (Oxford, American Heritage, Merriam Webster, Random House but gods forbid, never a generic Webster’s). A thesaurus (likely Roget’s). A style guide (CP for Canadians, or AP for Americans… Canadians likely have both).  A dictionary of quotations (because the print version is reliable as a source, and the Internet isn’t). And a usage guide.

That’s de rigeur for these professions, and the very minimum that they likely have in front of them every time they write or edit. To ignore these authorities or their guidance would be unprofessional and most professionals will have more of such titles than these basics.

There are many of the latter usage guides to choose from. Strunk and White. Partridge. Gowers. Flesch. Garner. Follett. Wallraff. Pinker. Dozens of books about grammar also fit the bill. The real language wonks have the encyclopedic Chicago Manual of Style (the latest 16th edition…). But Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage will likely hold pride of place. After all, it’s THE guide. We all have at least one copy of it. Writers and editors, that is.

Fowler’s has been the go-to guide for writers and editors since its first publication in 1926, now more a bit of linguistic paleontology than a working guide. It was revised in 1937. It’s still in print, though, nearly a century later. It was revised and edited by Ernest Gowers in the famous second edition, first published in 1965, revised in 1983 and reprinted many times. That’s the version most of my generation used and it’s still a workhorse. But it’s now more than 50 years old, and ,a bit fusty, but Gowers was also a canny wordsmith. As he wrote of Fowler in his introduction:

The truth is that the prime mover of his moralizing was not so much grammatical grundyism as the instincts of a craftsman. ‘Proper words in proper places’, said Swift, ‘make the true definition of a style.’ Fowler thought so too; and, being a perfectionist, could not be satisfied with anything that seemed to him to fall below the highest standard either in the choice of precise words or in their careful and orderly arrangement.

He knew, he said, that ‘what grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes’. ‘And yet’, he added, ‘the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. He has had his reward in his book’s finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called ‘the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape’

Grundyism? Doesn’t that make you want to read it? If so you can find it online in PDF format. Or open your own, well-thumbed edition to page 19.

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Where Have The Real Heroes Gone?

Another hero
Another hero

Heroes, it sometimes seems, have been relegated to legend and myth. There are none left, none of the sort I used to associate with the name. Not in the media, anyway.

The word has been so abused in the media over the last century, tossed about in such a cavalier manner that it has lost its former credit; it has become debased language, its pith cored for showy effect, like glitter, like so many over-used superlatives have been. Its strength drained away.

Calling someone a hero today has the same punch as a teacher saying a child “lives up to his potential.”

A hero is now someone who shops wisely, drinks milk instead of pop, or drops off a bag of cat chow at the local animal shelter. I am a hero for recycling my kitchen waste, or so a label on my green bin says. There’s a gardening hero in Australia, who is called that for creating a TV show about – you guessed it – gardening. You can be a hero in your living room just by playing a video game and pushing buttons in the right order on a fake guitar.

It’s like the word awesome – so few things generate actual awe in us, but the word appears under Facebook pictures of kittens and puppies or tossed around in status posts.

Standing under the millennium-old arches of Westminster Abbey, I felt awe. I felt wonder. I felt diminished by the weight of history around me, reduced to a mere mortal by the lives that had passed through these halls before me. Awed by the sweeping majesty of it all.

Someone on social media bragging they’re awesome  – appropriating a word so it merely means egotistic or happy  – simply cannot compare in emotional depth to what I felt in the great cathedral, any more than my adding banana peels to the green bin is heroic.

And that’s unfortunate, because we really need a word for those people who do real, heroic deeds. Calling a firefighter who saves a child from a burning house a hero today puts him or her on the same level as me and my banana peels. And that’s not right. We need heroes to look up to, to idolize, to remind us of how important it is to act for non-selfish reasons.

Just being a good person isn’t being heroic. We used to call these people “good Samaritans” but in the age of hyperbole, we seem to have to raise the volume and make out that anyone who does a good deed, no matter how trivial, appears heroic.  And in doing so, we trivialize real heroism.

There are brave, courageous people who stand up for our rights and freedoms. There are kind and compassionate people who do acts of caring and determination. There are people who are courteous, polite civil; who say please and thank you, hold doors open and don’t fly into road rage at being passed on the highway. There are people who volunteer their time to help others, advocate for the greater good, and donate money to their causes.

They’re all wonderful, kind, even brave people. But they’re not heroes.

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