The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology. There have been many kinds of writing, pictographic and syllabic, but there is only one phonetic alphabet in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds. This stark division and parallelism between a visual and an auditory world was but crude and ruthless, culturally speaking. The phonetically written word sacrifices worlds of meaning and perception that were secured by forms like the hieroglyph and Chinese ideogram. These cultrually richer forms of writing, however, offered men no means of sudden transfer from the magically discontinuous and traditional world of the tribal word into the hot and uniform visual medium. (Marshall McLuhan, The Written Word: An Eye for an Ear)
Marshall McLuhan is a man whose words I cherish, as he was so able to communicate complex ideas in an understandable manner. A tribute to his genius is that while reading his words it is as if the sun pokes between the clouds, yet shortly after I lose that light. I have to continually revisit him.
Consequentially, his major essays, collected in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, sits atop my shelves here among pictures of my mother and grandmother and others – I didn’t realize as I placed that and two other books there that I was reserving a place of honor for him. I just wanted his book to be handy.
Love of the written word takes many forms. Some prefer fiction writers, and I tend to agree that fiction in the proper hands conveys important truths in a manner that non-fiction cannot. (See, for example, “The New Testament” by various anonymous authors.) Others prefer poetry, but I’ve never been able to sit and look at a it long enough for it to penetrate this thick cranium. Hearing poetry is another experience entirely.
I read mostly non-fiction. But my most recent experience with fiction, The Stranger by Camus, left me wanting more. It was so deeply moving. In the same manner, On the Road by Kerouac moved me … “That’s not writing. That’s typing!” scorned Truman Capote, but Kerouac had managed to convey to me the emptiness felt by the Beat Generation in the post-war years in a manner that no historian could touch.
So as a reader of non-fiction, I doff my cap tho those who prefer fiction. Their pathway to truth is less littered with lies than my own.
As we head into a new year, I take a moment now to offer tribute to those who read this blog and bring their own ideas and experiences here. There is nothing new or original under the sun, of course, but there is the human mind. We are capable exchanging complex notions of great value.
It is always obvious to me in blog exchanges whether or not I am dealing with someone who reads, and even more, the type of reading done. It takes a lot of reading over time before things can settle in and begin to paint a picture of the world that has some consistency around the edges.
As a young man raising kids and working full time, I managed to read maybe three books a year, and consequently each had disproportionate impact on me. So it was that I read, for example Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, and Dare to Discipline by James Dobson. Without broader experience, the effect of these men was disproportionate.
So too is it with so many of recent generations who have read Atlas Shrugged, and then stopped. It’s good to read Ayn Rand, and then even better to throw her aside with great force later on. It’s a liberating feeling.
Before we settled in the house we now occupy, we looked at maybe thirty others in this area and up around Boulder. I was always curious about the people who lived in those houses, so as we went room-to-room I looked for the book shelves or stacks. What I generally found was no shelves or stacks, maybe a few travel guides or a beach book or two. Dan Brown probably accounted for 60% of book sales in this land a few years back. It’s a desert out there, I realize.
But then I recall that Allen Dulles, who sat on the Warren Commission, reminded the other Commission members that even though the final Report would contain gaping holes and contradictions, that they should not worry about it because Americans do not read.
That was 1964 and true then as now.
As McLuhan reminds us, what is more meaningful on a wall? An American flag, or the words “American flag”? While phonetic symbols store a great wealth of information, symbols impart far more and with immediate impact. Consequently, the power of television and movies, and now the images on the screen of our computers, own the American mind.
There is a vast treasure trove of truth and lies out there waiting to be assembled and easily accessible to all of us. But it is hidden away in books, and so will never be found.