“People asked, Should directors also be able to write? I said it was more important that they be able to read.” — Billy Wilder
If you know any teachers, you’ve probably had many opportunities to participate in a certain kind of conversation. It’s the conversation that begins with the teacher saying, “What I can’t understand is . . .” This is followed by one example, then another example, then a long list of examples of incomprehensible things that students do, or fully comprehensible things that they cannot seem to comprehend.
Yesterday I heard from a friend of mine, a teacher, and I made the mistake of asking how her class was going. This is what she wrote in reply: “I like my class. I like my students. In fact, I like them even better than the class. They’re smart; they’re unprejudiced; they’re charming and energetic. What I can’t understand is why, since virtually all of them are native speakers of English and have taken college prep courses, they still think that ‘most’ is the same as ‘almost.’ They think that to ‘service’ someone is the same as to ‘serve’ him. The difference between ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophesy’ is invisible to them, as is the difference between 'lose' and 'loose.'
“And I don’t understand why, since many of them are the children of immigrants and have no difficulty ‘relating to’ at least two languages on the level of daily conversation, much of what they read in English strikes them as an embarrassing foreign language. When they read aloud, they stop and wonder about every ‘foreign’ word, most of which aren’t foreign at all. ‘Interrogate’ turns into ‘introcate’; ‘Jonathan’ is ‘Johnnythan’ (except for their own friends named Jonathan, whose names present no difficulty, because they don’t have to be read). And heaven help you if you’re teaching about Herodotus.
“I teach a senior college prep class, and we have readings from the Bible. One of my paper assignments asks them to discuss a topic in Genesis. The assignments say clearly, ‘Do not underline or italicize the word ‘Bible’ or the names of its various books.’ As a result, their papers start in this way: ‘In The Book of Genesis, which is part of The Holy Bible, god says to Abruham . . . .’
“In short, my students are bright young people who are incapable of reading, in the sense of noticing what they read.”
I’ve quoted my friend’s message at length, because I think it identifies a general problem. This isn’t basically a writing problem or a speaking problem; it’s a reading, or should I say a not-reading, problem. By “reading” I don’t mean “reading messages on the internet, or your telephone.” I mean reading something that makes you comfortable with complex linguistic resources, employed in complex rhetorical contexts. And I mean focusing your attention on it, not just looking at it without noticing any more than its general current and tendency.
If you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either.
Here’s an example. I happen to be reading a book about American religious beliefs and customs. It’s written by two statistically fascinated social scientists, but in this case, statistical fascination doesn’t imply bad writing. They are perfectly competent. They have a good idea of the linguistic resources at their disposal, including the many means that good readers learn to simplify or complicate the sentences they write.
So, at one point in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell say the following about the results of their statistical research on marriage and religion: “The propensity for marriage within the faith is much higher among more religious people — not surprisingly. We can’t say for sure whether low religious commitment is a cause or a consequence of intermarriage — or more likely, both cause and consequence — but intermarriage is strongly associated with lower religious observance.”
I’m concerned with that phrase “both cause and consequence.” It’s a shorthand way of saying “each is both a cause and a consequence of the other.” Long ago, writers of English learned from writers of Latin that you don’t need to say all that. As long as you’ve set up a sequence of parallels, “cause . . . consequence,” which are both complements of “is,” you can follow it with another complement, “both cause and consequence,” and that’s it — you’ve cut to the chase.
This is an almost trivial example of linguistic competence. But I would fall off my chair if I found one of my sophomore college students using this technique. It’s not that they’re dumb; they’re very bright indeed. But “both cause and consequence” is the kind of thing you don’t find when you’re listening to television, or reading messages online; and that, I believe, is most of the reading and “serious” hearing that students do.
As the president is always saying, let me be clear about this. I read online messages myself, sometimes all day and all night. Some of the most interesting, individual, and incisive writing I’ve ever read has appeared in online commentary. Several years ago, I paid enthusiastic tribute to writing done in online communities ("The Truth vs. the Truth," Liberty, Sept.-Oct. 2003). But it appears that online reading (except, of course, when enjoyed on Liberty’s website) doesn’t give people adequate experience of what can be done with the sophisticated written language of the normal serious book. The decline of complex verbal experience began with television, which like the internet ordinarily uses a very restricted variety of words and sentence patterns. The internet accelerated the decline by rewarding simplified communication with simplified but usually agreeable and often immediate response.
When people focus on complex sentences and arguments, they learn to pay close attention to verbal cues — closer attention than they need to pay to words that come naturally in conversation. I know a highly intelligent person who cannot remember, and does not care, whether her best friend’s name is “Katherine” or “Catherine.” Apparently the first name doesn’t appear in the person’s email address, or my friend doesn’t pick up on the cue — and why should she? It makes no difference in either email or direct conversation. I know many intelligent people who have everyday fluency in two languages but haven’t the faintest idea of how to construe a really complicated sentence, in either one.
The problem is, if you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either. While the civilized world, and even the world of television news, is saying, “I saw it yesterday,” you may keep saying, “I seen it yesterday.” One of the brightest people I know keeps saying, “I coulda swore that program woulda worked.” And while everyone who reads words, notices them, and reflects on them tries to avoid trite statements, inaccurate diction, and unintended implications, the nonreader will keep saying, “I was literally blown away by the judge’s disinterest.”
A long time ago, before the internet was fully in use, by everyone, all the time, I was visiting my friends Muriel Hall and Mary Jane Hodges, who lived in a small town in New England. We were going out to eat, and on the way we discussed the bad things that happen in restaurants. I mentioned the repulsive way in which waiters ask, “You still workin’ on that?” while they’re trying to grab your plate. After all, who wants to think of dinner, especially a dinner you pay for, as some kind of work you have to do?
Muriel and MJ looked at me in horror. “My God!” they said. “That’s what they say in California?”
“Well, let’s hope it never happens here.”
A year later, when I returned to their little town, I found them sunk in gloomy meditations. “It’s here,” they said. “You still workin’ on that?”
Yes, it was there. And here, there, and everywhere, it has remained. “You still workin’ on that?” is now what nonreaders call an integral part (as if there were another kind of part) of the ritual of dining. It’s chanted everywhere — as difficult to avoid as “How Great Thou Art” in a Methodist church. Every waiter I meet is a college student or a college graduate, so we’re not talking about linguistic behavior that is innocently illiterate. No, this is illiteracy practiced as a faith, a faith that, having resulted from a long process of education and social reinforcement, has become second nature to its devotees.
The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.
Apparently, authors no longer wait tables while they’re trying for their first big break. Or if they’re still doing that, you won’t want to read anything they eventually get published. Like other Americans, they’ve lost their ability to pick up cues — with one exception. They are sensitive to the subtlest possibilities of offending anyone “politically.” The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.
One cue that most people used to notice was the red light that comes on in your brain just before you say something that’s just naturally offensive. Used to. When “that really sucks” is taken as acceptable in all social circumstances, you know that the alarms have shorted out. Those who know me understand that I have warm respect for profanity, appropriately applied; but otherwise-useful terms are merely disturbing when they’re employed without anyone’s appearing to care what they suggest.
As I write, a man is wandering down the street outside, discussing in a loud voice (why not?) his intimate problems with his girlfriend. There are two possibilities. (1) He is using a hands-free cellphone. (2) He is insane. The salient fact is that these days, you can’t tell the difference. In the ranter’s head, no warning bells can ever ring. He might avoid the path of a passing car, but language presents no risks. Not in his perception, and not in reality, either. How often will anyone accost him and explain how unfavorably he affects the neighborhood? And if anyone did, he probably wouldn’t pay any attention. He wouldn’t pick up the cue. He’d think that the other person was crazy. Or he’d just ignore the whole thing.
That’s what happens when you make some instructive response to “You still workin’ on that?” I used to try, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then I tried, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then, “Do you mean, am I still eating?” On and on. The answer was always, “Right — I see you’re still workin’.” You see what I mean about missing cues.
So far, I’ve been picking on waiters, nameless persons in the street, commonplace users of the internet, normal victims of high-school education, and so on. Now I’m going to pick on the president.
We can’t blame President Obama’s linguistic failures on the internet, although we might go after his high school, or the doting folks who brought him up to think that whatever he said or did would establish some new standard of excellence. But whatever the cause, his verbal warning system never got turned on. I suspect that he would be ten points higher in the polls if he’d had the sense not to say that his nomination for the presidency would stop the oceans from rising, or that people who weren’t inclined to vote for him were clinging pathetically to their guns and their religion, or that his grandmother made racist comments, or any of a hundred other offensive things he’s said, which he simply had no clue were offensive.
There was a new one, just the other day. It was the president’s statement — no doubt carefully planned, but certainly not well meditated — about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young man who happened, like the president, to be of African descent. Obama expressed his sympathy by saying, “You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” In other words, all black men look alike to President Obama — because the only thing that made Trayvon Martin look like him was his race and gender. This is patently offensive, but the president didn’t have a clue that it was.
Only a person who doesn’t read many words — real words, written by real writers, not reports from campaign agents or White House officials — or think about the meanings and implications of words, could possibly have made such an offensive and silly statement.
Why did he make it? Because “someone who looks like me” is a cliché used to elicit votes from people who share your ethnicity. Its cheapness and foolishness never dawned on President Obama.
Oh, but the president is an author himself! He must know language, and be thinking deep thoughts about it! Of course, it doesn’t take much reading to write a book, as any casual perusal of an airport “bookstore” will inform you. But let’s consider the possibility. Maybe playing golf and watching basketball aren’t really the president’s favorite pursuits. Maybe that’s just a lie, put out to cover his real though unmanly interest in reading good books. Maybe, during his speeches, what he’s really thinking is, “I wish I could get back to Tolstoy.” Maybe in his private restroom there’s a copy of Montaigne sitting on the toilet. Maybe he goes to bed early so he can curl up reading Shakespeare in the original Klingon.
Whatever the cause, President Obama’s verbal warning system never got turned on.
Barack Obama wrote two books about himself and his opinions. But tell me, how many authors does he quote or mention in his speeches (which are long and frequent) or his interviews and known conversations? To which good authors does he allude? Madison? Voltaire? Thucydides? Elbert Hubbard? Mother Goose? Tell me, that I may be instructed.
None? Can’t think of any? The president’s intellectual context is television talk, stray bits of college texts, the oracles of dead “progressives” . . . even his legal education (witness his recent comments about the Supreme Court) didn’t seem to command his full attention. But context is all. If the context of your intellectual life wasn’t formed by reading books — serious, complex books — your signal system just isn’t going to work. Sorry. And the only thing you can do to fix it is (horrifying thought) to read a book.