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Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Now that I hardly ever spell out a word I do not know, and the things that puzzle me in books do not lie in individual words but in the author’s assumption of shared knowledge about the human heart (never my strong point), I still have, like everybody, words in my vocabulary that are relics of that time. The words we learned exclusively from having books infill their meaning for us, are the ones we pronounce differently from everyone else. Or, if we force ourselves to say them the public way, secretly we believe the proper pronunciation is our own, deduced from the page and not corrected by hearing the word aloud until it was too late to alter its sound. The classic is ‘misled’, said not as mis-led but as myzled — the past tense of a verb, ‘to misle’, which somehow never comes up in the present tense. In fact, misled never misled me. One of mine is ‘grimace’. You probably think it’s pronounced grimuss, but I know different. It’s grim-ace to rhyme with ‘face’. I’m sorry, but on this point, the entire English-speaking human race except me is wrong.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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At the same time, I couldn’t read quite a lot of the words in The Hobbit. I had accelerated into reading faster than my understanding had grown. If I press my memory for the sensation of reading the second half of the book, when I was flying through the story, I remember, simultaneous with the new liquid smoothness, a constant flicker of incomprehensibility. There were holes in the text corresponding to the parts I couldn’t understand. Words like prophesying, rekindled and adornment had never been spoken in my hearing. No one had ever told me aloud to behold something, and I didn’t know that vessels could be cups and bowls as well as ships. I could say these words over, and shape my mouth around their big sounds. I could enjoy their heft in the sentences. They were obviously the special vocabulary that was apt for the slaying of dragons and the fighting of armies: words that conjured the sound of trumpets. But for all the meaning I obtained from them, they might as well not have been printed. When I speeded up, and up, and my reading became fluent, it was partly because I had learned how to ignore such words efficiently. I methodically left out chunks. I marked them to be sorted out later, by slower and more patient mental processes; I allowed each one to brace a blank space of greater or lesser size in its sentence; I grabbed the gist, which seemed to survive even in sentences that were mostly hole; and I sped on.

I could do this because written English is an extremely robust system. It does not offer the user a brittle binary choice between complete comprehension and complete incomprehension. It tolerates many faults, and still delivers some sense. The reasons why were spelled out in 1948, by Claude Shannon of the Bell Telephone Company, as an incidental consequence of his mathematical research into the capacity of phone networks. Shannon’s Mathematical Theory of Communication has been fruitful for cryptography, the sciences of chaos, literary theory, and the design of the Internet. It can also be applied to a six-year-old reading The Hobbit. Functionally speaking, there is no difference between a phone call one-third obscured by static on the line, a manuscript one-third eaten by mice, and a printed page one-third of whose words you don’t know. Ignorance is just a kind of noise; and Shannon was interested in measuring how much of a message could be disrupted by the noise that’s inevitable on any channel of communication, before it became impossible to decipher it.

He showed that information, in certain respects, flows through a network like heat flowing in nature. Like the entropy of atoms dispersing into ever greater randomness, an information flow’s entropy could be measured, that is, the relative freedom every passing bit of information had to be any one of the symbols in the set that was in use, whether they were digits, or Morse dots and dashes, or letters of the alphabet. Conversely, it was possible to calculate how much of any information flow was not free to vary, since it was enforced by the structure of the message being transmitted. Suppose that the symbol set in question is the alphabet, and the message is being sent in English. After every letter q the next letter must be u. After every letter t the next letter is more likely to be h than any other; and may never be x. I comes before e except after c. All of these rules are expressions of the ‘redundancy’ in English, indications of the ways in which the structure of the written language makes it less than random, and so restricts the possibilities for each element.

Shannon used ‘redundant’ as a technical term. He did not mean that these rules were not essential to the intricate, delicate ways by which we convey meaning in writing. But the more highly structured a message was, the more its individual elements were indeed redundant in the sense that they could be dispensed with, and the more the message could be compressed, or edited, or subjected to electrical storms and mice and ignorance, without losing its intelligibility. If u invariably followed q, then u really added no extra information to q. U could therefore be taken away and nothing would be lost from the meaning. The person receiving the message — Shannon concluded — would be able to understand it adequately if noise removed any amount of the message up to the maximum redundancy built into the message by its structure. He did a quick statistical survey of written English, and calculated that it had a redundancy of about 50 per cent. Up to half of an English text could be deleted before doing such critical damage to its message that you’d give up and say Eh? A page of The Hobbit could have had Tipp-Ex rained down on up to half its words, or been cloven by dwarvish axes so long as it was not quite cloven in twain, and I would have been able to follow it. My mental blanking when the print spelled out a-d-o-r-n-m-e-n-t could not stop the flow of story from the book into my mind.

I found that the gaps in the text where I did not know words began to fill themselves in from the edges, as if by magic. It was not magic. I was beginning to acquire the refined and specialised sense of probability that a reader gets from frequent encounters with the texture of prose: not just the probabilities of which letters and words would follow each other that Shannon had studied, in his brief survey of language as one transmission system among many, but all the larger probabilities governing the shapes of paragraphs and chapters, all the way up to the over-arching rules — or meta-rules — of story itself, that grand repertoire of beginnings and middles and ends. Unknown words picked up meaning from the words around them; meanings that worked well enough in context, though sometimes I was completely wrong.

I remember there was an intermediate stage when strange words did not yet quite have a definite meaning of their own, but possessed a kind of atmosphere of meaning, which was a compromise between the meanings of all the other words which seemed to come up in conjunction with the unknown one, and which I had decided had a bearing on it. The holes in the text grew over, like this. The empty spaces thickened, took on qualities which at first were not their own, then became known in their own right.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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With Bilbo, I saw the peaks of the Misty Mountains. Mirkwood surrounded me, the forest of fairy tales in particularly gnarled, glimmering, spider-infested form. When Bilbo climbed a tree in Mirkwood to spy out the land, I burst through the canopy of the forest after days in the green gloom, and found the sea of bright breeze-ruffled leaves where velvet-black butterflies played. Not — I find now, re-reading The Hobbit — that Tolkien described any of these things in the detail I remember. His was a speedy, storyteller’s art. It made a few precise suggestions, supplied a few nodal adjectives from which the webwork of an imagined world could grow in a child’s mind, and didn’t linger. I made the pictures. I was lucky that my first book put me in the hands of a writer with such a conscious and decided idea of what a reader’s imagination needed. Tolkien had trained himself on the hard nugget-like specifics of Anglo-Saxon and Viking poetry, with its names for things that were almost spells, and its metaphors that were almost riddles. At six I had no idea that the sea had once been the whale-path, or that Tolkien had any predecessors when he had Bilbo boast to Smaug that he was ‘the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly’. He made bread, blood and diamonds, and the bees as big as thumbs at Bjorn’s house, seem as fresh and vividly discovered as if they had just been thought of, for the first time in the world. What I did know explicitly was that while’Tolkien’s words were authoritative, his occasional black-and-white drawings in the text only counted as hints I was free to accept or refuse. What Middle-Earth looked like was my business. Illustrations — I decided — were limitations.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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To achieve the effect, someone reading a book in English has to perform an intricate procedure at high speed: an act of double translation. First, you turn the printed characters into sounds. The alphabet is a set of arbitrary signs standing for the sounds of the spoken language; though not on a straightforward one-to-one basis. Groups of letters build up to represent a single unit of sound, or phoneme, and the sound they make is dictated by the combination. The animal that claws your leg as you watch TV is called a cat, not a kuh-ah-tuh, although as children we’re encouraged to pretend that each letter has its own unvarying sonic identity, to give us some purchase on the first stage of the code we’re learning to crack. Then the second stage. Spoken language is itself an arbitrary code in which the sounds that the human lips, larynx and tongue can produce — the phonemes — stand for the grammatical units, or morphemes, into which meaning is divided; though not on a straightforward one-to-one basis. So you translate writing into speech, and speech into meaning. Graphemes into phonemes, and phonemes into morphemes. The complexity of this arrangement allows simplicity at its front end. An alphabetic writing system is extraordinarily compact. It uses a very small number of symbols to express the whole range of possible meanings in a language. You can read English, or Arabic, or Russian, or Hindi by learning between twenty and thirty different squiggles, plus a few punctuation marks representing pauses of different length and intensity. In the traditional form of lead type, the entire roman alphabet — that is, the entire European technology of writing — will fit across the palm of one hand. Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. …

As a dinky, discrete little system it lodges in your head among the knowledge of how to do things. Like whistling or riding a bicycle, it can be retrieved from memory without any effort at all. But the economy of the code comes at the price of some cognitive heavy lifting. There’s evidence that dyslexia is a significantly greater problem for children in the alphabet-using cultures than it is in China and Japan, where a written language based on ideograms asks the reader for a single, rather than a double, translation. With ideograms, the character correlates directly with the meaning: graphemes go straight to morphemes. On the other hand, the difficulty that alphabets internalise is externalised in Japan and China in the shape of the vast array of 35,000 or more characters. A Chinese poet or jurist, no matter how learned, will from time to time come across a character they don’t recognise. In a sense, they never finish learning to read. Sparing dementia, stroke, or major head injury, a literate alphabet-user will never come across any b or z they can’t read.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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Stealing novels

I’m thirty-two years old as I do my little performance in the bookshop, which means I’ve been reading for twenty-six years. Twenty-six years since the furze of black marks between the covers of The Hobbit grew lucid, and released a dragon. Twenty-six years therefore since the primary ‘discovery that the dragon remained internal to me. Inside my head, Smaug hurtled, lava gold, scaly green. And nothing showed. Wars, jokes, torrents of faces would fill me from other books, as I read on, and none of that would show either. It made a kind of intangible shoplifting possible, I realised when I was eleven or so. If your memory was OK you could descend on a bookshop — a big enough one so that the staff wouldn’t’ hassle a browser — and steal the contents of books by reading them. I drank down 1984 while loitering in the 0 section of the giant Heffers store in Cambridge. When I was full I carried the slopping vessel of my attention carefully out of the shop. Nobody at the cash desks could tell that I now contained Winston Smith’s telescreen chanting its victories, O’Brien’s voice admitting that the Thought Police got him a long time ago. It took me three successive Saturdays to steal the whole novel. But I have not ceased to be amazed at the invisibility I depend on.

— Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built

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Context determines the meaning of every utterance, and every word of every utterance. Because we exist in time, the context that determines the meaning of every utterance and every word is constantly expanding. Each moment there is more context. What I said yesterday will be understood not only in its original context but also in the context of the events of today. “I am not a crook,” said Richard Nixon, but subsequent events convinced many Americans that he was indeed a crook, and the subsequent events now set the context for the original statement. The ultimate meaning of any utterance is deferred until history is done, until the last word is spoken, until context is closed off once and for all.

But what if that never happens? What if context determines meaning, and context keeps expanding indefinitely, forever and ever without closure, without a last word, without a final judgment, age after age, amen? This is Derrida’s view, and he uses explicitly theological language to confess what he disbelieves. He rejects eschatology, any hope that there will be “messianic” finale to human history.39 Context will expand forever, and therefore meaning, which arises from difference, will be deferred forever. We can never know in fullness what our texts or utterances mean, much less the texts produced by another, because we can’t know how the future context, and future texts, might affect the meaning of what we write and say.

This is Derrida’s concept of differance, which he punningly spells with an a rather than an e to capture the twin notions of “difference” and “deferral.” Meaning arises from difference, but precisely for that reason, meaning is endlessly deferred.

— Peter Leithart, Solomon among the Postmoderns 

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As for language, the philosophes might remind us that the written word and an oratory based upon it have a content—a semantic, paraphrasable content. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence, a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenthand nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A printed sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said. And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is especially the case with the act of reading, for authors are not always trustworthy. They lie, they become confused, they over-generalize, they abuse logic and, sometimes, common sense. The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because the reader comes to the text alone. In reading, one’s responses are isolated, one’s intellect thrown back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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