How many people still read? Or write?
In a culture such as our west coast is developing, that may sound like a silly question. But consider the analogy of driving a car. Fewer people, on average, drive in the big cities. Of those, how many use a stick shift, or change their oil, or, themselves, repair the clattering valve lifter?
As technology changes we become more removed from the nuts and bolts of our daily tasks. That’s a good thing, right? It leaves us time for more cerebral pursuits, such as ordering a frappalino with exactly 2 centimetres of water at our favourite coffee house and then dealing with all those friend requests.
What do so many of us read? If one were to suggest Plato’s Dialogues, or a modern retelling of it by Rebecca Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex, one ‘s coffee would curdle with the derision.
The nuts and bolts of reading and writing have been smoothed and smothered by our convenient technologies. Where we would once have been expected to know how to construct an argument from solid substance and well-considered analysis, today that is actually frowned on as being way too formal and complicated an approach. “Like, I don’t have to know, like, that stuff. I know what I like!” “Oh yeah. I’m a writer. Like, I write all the time! Got calluses on my thumbs! See?”
In the bulwarks fighting the good battle against the Dark Age Ahead (2004, Jane Jacobs) stand local writers groups and regional writers’ festivals.
Leading the fight are such festivals as Word on the Lake, held in May at Salmon Arm. While the desire to have such festivals may be general, it requires a particular strength of leadership and persistence of vision to carry it off successfully for more than a dozen years. Sincere thanks are gratefully extended to Kay Johnston and her enthusiastic volunteers in and around Salmon Arm for the consistent quality with which they do so.
Dr. Patrick Taylor was this year’s Keynote Speaker, and a wise choice it was. Imagine, if you haven’t met the man, a rather large leprechaun peering up over the podium:
Councilor, on behalf of the Mayor – who is marching this morning in support of the local missing women and children – Madam President, Fellow Faculty, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is for me a great honour to have been invited to give the opening keynote address to the Word on the Lake Writer’s Festival. Thank you. I promise that like me the address will be short.
Since the invitation, I have been wondering what should I say. And I wondered… and finally I decided to talk about anniversaries and how they might relate to the writing life.
That’s right anniversaries.
This year is a big one. Canada will mark the 150th anniversary of the British North America Act which, on July 1, 1867, made our country the Federal Dominion of Canada. As an aside, allow me to mention that it is Montreal’s 375th anniversary.
Can I make a connection between that as an example of an anniversary and writing? I can, but it’s a tenuous one at best to start with. I’ll try to get better as we move along.
A mere thirty years later, in 1897 (our 120th anniversary) the Canadian government established a National Policy of Tariffs, taxing imports from Great Britain in defiance of the mother country, occasioning Rudyard Kipling, a literary giant of his time and a fervent imperialist, to pen the cautionary, Our Lady of the Snows, which begins,
A nation spoke to a nation,
A queen sent word to a throne,
Daughter am I in my mother’s house,
But mistress in my own…
A polite but forceful way of using poetry to suggest Britain under Queen Victoria should butt out of Canadian affairs. That took a while and five more monarchs until, with The Canada Act of 1982 (35th anniversary) was the constitution patriated and at the same time the Charter was adopted, Kipling’s advice had come to fruition and Canada was her own nation.
And, en passant, Canada is something very special to Dorothy and me, a couple of Irish waifs and strays whom you have graciously taken into the family. Coincidentally we are both half our adoptive country’s age in this, Canada’s 150th birthday year.
Now to return to my theme: so far, I’m afraid I have only managed to make one connection between anniversaries and writing but others began slowly to appear and I hope as I develop my argument you too will see the co-relations and perhaps be a little scared as am I. I believe, however, that I can end on a positive note.
Don’t hold me to it for complete accuracy but it is somewhere between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago something miraculous happened in Mesopotamia or Egypt, and in India and in China. The human primate began to communicate in writing. Ideas could be recorded, stored, discussed, passed on from one generation to the next. And it is that writing we are here now to celebrate thousands of years later.
Six hundred and seventeen years ago, approximately, Johannes Guttenberg was born and shortly thereafter the printing press with moveable type arrived. Since those years, the written word ruled. And old fogies like me hoped its rule would last forever, despite the advent of television and more recently the w.w.w. (predicted by a great Canadian, Marshall McLuhan). His earlier pronouncement, in 1967 (this is its 50th) that “the medium is the message”, encapsulated the concept that people were then understanding their world in images not sentences, and the written word, with its connotations of quiet reflection, expenditure of effort to comprehend its meaning, was losing ground it would never regain.
Purely by chance I have just finished re-reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (95th anniversary of publication), and 1984, by Eric Blair, aka George Orwell (58th anniversary), I made a particular effort to see how each predicted the fate of books.
Orwell believed that the governing power would ultimately ban books. The step prior to that, and I quote, “Books were just a commodity that had to be produced like jam and boot laces”, was to corrupt the language. In 1984 this was overseen by the “Thought Police.”
His Appendix, The Principles of Newspeak, demonstrates how those wishing to control how we think must degrade and control the language. An example “This dog is free from lice” was acceptable but, “Intellectually free”, was not. I am sorry if I offend—these days it is practically impossible to open your mouth in public without doing so, but my friend John who has been smitten with retinitis pigmentosa assures me that telling him that he is visually impaired improves his vision not one whit. In 1984, adding the prefix “un” to cold meant warm, and plus cold, and doublepluscold (a term reserved for Winnipeg in winter) cranked down the heat and banished warm and its variants forever, thus simplifying (dumbing down) the language. “I am waiting 4 U 2 come”, is the modem equivalent, but at least that corruption has no political overtones—yet. A report in the Times of London noted that children from 8-18 might have vocabularies of 40-50 thousand words but only used 800 on a daily basis—and one third of them are yes, no, and but. Our language is under threat.
Huxley, on the other hand, predicted that there would be no books because no one would want to read anymore and I personally fear Huxley may be close to the truth as well. In 2016’s first quarter, sales of paper books fell (1.3%) and Barnes and Noble reported a downturn of 24.5% in its Nook division. One only has to take public transport to see the hordes of pathological thumbers.
So, as I wondered if the wheels were really falling off, if we as writers and readers could do anything to reverse these trends and to quote the tailor (no relative) Motel Kamzoil in Fiddler on the roof, “Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles,” I stumbled on a think piece by Sean Iiling in Vox, discussing the implications of Neill Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death.
This is the 32nd anniversary of its publication.
Postman’s thesis was like McLuhan’s: “We are a culture whose information and ideas are now given form by TV not the printed word.” The Vox piece largely dealt with the influence of non-written imagery on politics, but right at the end I came upon, to quote Kenny Roger’s in The Gambler, “An ace that I could keep”.
In the opinion of Lance Strate, Professor of Communications at Fordham U, and I quote:
“I think Postman held out great hope for education as a way of addressing these problems [loss of the printed word]. Which also means really emphasizing the enlightenment tradition of rational discourse and just plain literacy, and not giving in to the latest and trying to make a school compete with television or the internet. So that is certainly part of the solution.”
He goes on to say, “I think we have to talk and to read. It may well be that the only way we ever get things done is locally, and through personal connections, and trying to work that way. I just don’t see any top down solution to this. But I think that we can certainly try to improve things. If everyone did that or if enough people did that on a personal level, that’s one way that this could be countered.”
And where does that, tradition of rational discourse and just plain literacy, get done? Where do we talk and read through personal connections? At writers’ groups, at branches of national literary groups like CAA and TWUC, at international writers’ groups like AG of A.
I said at the beginning I might make you a little scared, but hoped I could end on a positive note. You, all of you who are here at this festival because you love reading and writing, you are an integral and critical part of where rational discourse and plain literacy live and grow and thrive. You are the torchbearers. Hold them high. Be hopeful that the word will survive. I am.
I have offered you some correlations between writing and anniversaries, This is the 14th of Word on the Lake. It’s 6,000 years since writing was invented. I have two more hopes: one is that you all will enjoy the remarkable programme that the organisers have put together; and the other is that on July 1st this year, when Dorothy and I will attend not one but two Canada Day functions, every last one of you like us will raise a glass and wish the true north strong and free a very happy birthday, Canada, and many many happy returns of the country’s 150th, and the festival’s 14th, and the written word’s 6,000th birthdays.