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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, January 18, 2008

no gum-chewing

The spoken word has power. The written word has, perhaps, even more. In many ways I find this to be an unfathomable mystery.

It's as though humanity reached as eagerly for writing as a child does for speech. I recently saw a wonderful documentary about how infants learn. Of all the sounds that the developing baby hears in the womb--and it hears plenty--the most audible to it is its mother's voice. At birth we're already very familiar with our mother's voice: its pitch, rhythms, and other qualities.

Experiments show too that at birth the brain is a general-language machine, in the sense that a newborn infant can distinguish between sounds in just about any language. A one-month-old baby of English-speaking parents can clearly distinguish between two different sounds in, say, Hindi, that its parents cannot tell apart. Among adults, only Hindi-speakers can hear the difference in sound. The baby, immersed in the language of its household, loses this universal sound-distinguishing ability soon, by about six months, as I recall. Now habituated to its mother tongue, it too can no longer tell the foreign sounds apart.

Babies work ceaselessly to speak, as they do to walk. As extremely social animals we thirst to communicate. The baby's survival depends in part on its ability to communicate its needs, and babies get very frustrated at the barrier they experience in getting their message across. The acquisition of language has the strongest possible motivation behind it.

Language, as a skill, comes under the heading of technology, and it may be our oldest one. The technology called writing is much more recent, dating to maybe 4000 BC or so. But that too was reached for eagerly by cultures who felt the need for it. And now it would surely be the worst sign of disaster for a culture to slide from literacy to illiteracy: the social equivalent of Alzheimer's disease.

In this culture we're inundated with words and we take writing for granted. There seems to be too much of it: marketing "messages", political campaigning, the disposable chatter of text-messaging. If television is, as Steve Allen put it, "chewing-gum for the eyes", then almost all writing today is chewing-gum for the mind.

Almost all. For man does not live by chewing-gum alone, and it was not as chewing-gum that writing was originally created and valued. In the first place, someone must have had something important enough to say that he wanted to record it, so it would not be forgotten--or altered.

Writing reflects the cast of thought behind it. It is an expression of the values and intentions of its creator. All writing is intended to influence others--this blog is so intended. The question is always, influence people how? in what direction? to do what?

Lying next to my keyboard is the latest statement from my phone-service provider, Rogers. Across the top are emblazoned the words, "Welcome to Rogers"--a typical example of automated and meaningless commercial "friendliness". A more honest headline would be: "We rely on your money for our profits, but in most ways you are a nuisance to us, especially if any of our employees has to pay any individual attention to you. Then you become a cost center. Please don't do that." (Indeed, if they put that message on there, I would gain respect for them--something I have very little of right now.)

Those of us who make an art of writing have a special duty not to be false. The deluge of chewing-gum writing is characterized by its manipulativeness, hypocrisy, and frivolity. Writing as art should be none of these things. But most of all it should be truthful: telling it like it is (or was!).

I don't even like real chewing-gum.

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