Techspeak is the use of common acronyms and abbreviations in lieu of fully spelled out words you wish to communicate. For example: ADN – Any Day Now, CWYL – Chat With You Later and WE – Whatever, you get the point. Are there times when it is helpful to use shortcuts? Yes! For instance, I find myself using it when I am about to go underground and know that the time I take to say “See you in five minutes”, I can say “cu in 5”. Under circumstances such as this, using shortcut works in my favor. But for children, using techspeak as their primary written communication with friends and family every single day, it is not advantageous to their developing mind. As a matter of fact, it endangers their cognitive development. According to professor S. Shyam Sundar and Drew P. Cingel, in their article Texting, techspeak, and tweens The relationship between text messaging and English grammar skills, adolescents, 13-17, are more likely to use “techspeak”. This habitual way of writing not only “rob[s] this age group of a fundamental understanding of standard English grammar”, but also affects their performance on grammar assessments. Though text messaging technologies are useful and convenient, there is “a general relationship between messaging and adolescent grammar skills”. One of Sundar and Cingel interesting findings is relationship between messages received and messages sent. It seems adolescents adapt their language based on the messages they receive. In other words, if the message they receive reads “lol gr8 4 u” they are likely to respond in techspeak as well.
One of the most troublesome findings in their research is that adolescents are not able to successfully code switch. Most adolescents cannot switch from techspeak to correct English in the classroom. This is problem as there is an upward trend in using technology in classroom to teach adolescents and techspeak has now found itself in the classroom and “these adaptations carry over into standard writing practices”. One particular fallout that Sundar and Cingel do not cover, and I suppose it is because it is not within the scope of their research, is this written adaptation can carry over in speech. I often hear adolescents speak in techspeak to each other. With techspeak and slang, it is nearly impossible to understand what is being said. Sadly, just like in writing, these adolescents do not see that there is a time and a place for everything. When speaking to your teacher, saying “omg teach” is not the proper or respectful way of communicating with someone in a position of authority. It muddles the boundaries, if not, erase them.
How can you prevent your child/children from becoming a victim? Require that they communicate with you in standard English. As the research noted, adolescents are likely to respond in the similar way the message was received. This includes avoiding conjugations. Write “it is” instead of “it’s”. Just as techspeak is a form of habit, standard English can also become their new habit at least when communicating with their parents and other adults.
Some languages, like French, have an official body that decides how words can and cannot be used.
English, as a flexible, global language, has no such designated referee.
Therefore, there is no definitive answer to whether you’re using a word “correctly.”
It’s all a matter of taste and context. But there are opinions. And some count more than others.
Steven Pinker is probably as good an expert to ask as anyone. Helpfully, the renowned Harvard linguist and best-selling authorrecently wrote a book, titled “The Sense of Style,” that aims to help readers improve their use of the English language.
If you’re in the market for an update to , old Strunk and White, it’s probably a good buy. But if you just want to spot-check that you’ve not been making embarrassing language mistakes for years, a monster list of 58 commonly misused phrases covered in the book that recently appeared in the UK’s Independent newspaper is probably a good place to start.
Here are some highlights:
Adverse means “detrimental.” It does not mean “averse” or “disinclined.” Correct: “There were adverse effects.” / “I’m not averse to doing that.”
Appraise means to “ascertain the value of.” It does not mean to “apprise” or to “inform.” Correct: “I appraised the jewels.” / “I apprised him of the situation.”
Beg the question means that a statement assumes the truth of what it should be proving; it does not mean to “raise the question.” Correct: “When I asked the dealer why I should pay more for the German car, he said I would be getting ‘German quality,’ but that just begs the question.”
Bemused means “bewildered.” It does not mean “amused.” Correct: “The unnecessarily complex plot left me bemused.” / “The silly comedy amused me.”
Cliché is a noun, not an adjective. The adjective is clichéd. Correct: “Shakespeare used a lot of clichés.” / “The plot was so clichéd.”
Data is a plural count noun not, standardly speaking, a mass noun. [Note: “Data is rarely used as a plural today, just as candelabra and agenda long ago ceased to be plurals,” Pinker writes. “But I still like it.”] Correct: “This datum supports the theory, but many of the other data refute it.”
Depreciate means to “decrease in value.” It does not mean to “deprecate” or to “disparage.” Correct: “My car has depreciated a lot over the years.” / “She deprecated his efforts.”
Disinterested means “unbiased.” It does not mean “uninterested.” Correct: “The dispute should be resolved by a disinterested judge.” / “Why are you so uninterested in my story?”
Enormity refers to extreme evil. It does not mean “enormousness.” [Note: It is acceptable to use it to mean a deplorable enormousness.] Correct: “The enormity of the terrorist bombing brought bystanders to tears.” / “The enormousness of the homework assignment required several hours of work.”
Hone means to “sharpen.” It does not mean to “home in on” or “to converge upon.” Correct: “She honed her writing skills.” / “We’re homing in on a solution.”
Hung means “suspended.” It does not mean “suspended from the neck until dead.” Correct: “I hung the picture on my wall.” / “The prisoner was hanged.”
Ironic means “uncannily incongruent.” It does not mean “inconvenient” or “unfortunate.” Correct: “It was ironic that I forgot my textbook on human memory.” / “It was unfortunate that I forgot my textbook the night before the quiz.”
Nonplussed means “stunned” or “bewildered.” It does not mean “bored” or “unimpressed.” Correct: “The market crash left the experts nonplussed.” / “His market pitch left the investors unimpressed.”
Parameter refers to a variable. It not mean “boundary condition” or “limit.” Correct: “The forecast is based on parameters like inflation and interest rates.” / “We need to work within budgetary limits.”
Phenomena is a plural count noun — not a mass noun. Correct: “The phenomenon was intriguing, but it was only one of many phenomena gathered by the telescope.”
Shrunk, sprung, stunk, and sunk are past participles–not words in the past tense. Correct: “I’ve shrunk my shirt.” / “I shrank my shirt.”
Simplistic means “naively or overly simple.” It does not mean “simple” or “pleasingly simple.” Correct: “His simplistic answer suggested he wasn’t familiar with the material.” / “She liked the chair’s simple look.”
Verbal means “in linguistic form.” It does not mean “oral” or “spoken.” Correct: “Visual memories last longer than verbal ones.”
Effect means “influence”; to effect means “to put into effect”; to affect means either “to influence” or “to fake.” Correct: “They had a big effect on my style.” / “The law effected changes at the school.” / “They affected my style.” / “He affected an air of sophistication to impress her parents.”
Lie (intransitive: lies, lay, has lain) means to “recline”; lay (transitive: lays, laid, has laid) means to “set down”; lie (intransitive: lies, lied, has lied) means to “fib.” Correct: “He lies on the couch all day.” / “He lays a book upon the table.” / “He lies about what he does.”
It should be noted that while it’s always good to polish up your writing, one of the joys of language is that it isn’t fixed in time. It evolves. Nor is there a single “correct” style (in English, at least).
You’d neither connect nor impress if you chose your words like an Oxford don at a rap battle (though, actually, someone please make that YouTube video), and you’d be unlikely to get a job at an investment bank today speaking like Shakespeare.
Why is this important? It’s easy to get too caught up in being perfectly “correct” and become a tedious language snob. Remember you probably want to come across as intelligent and thoughtful, not uptight and pedantic. So don’t get so worked up over the little things that you miss the larger point of good writing — to communicate clearly and engagingly with your chosen audience.
Katie Tegtmeyer/Flickr“Reticent” just means shy. It doesn’t mean reluctant.
Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
They’re just words, aren’t they?
Why shouldn’t they take on new meanings as people start to use them incorrectly?
Indeed, “silly” once mean “blessed” and then “pious.” There’s a certain justice in where it’s ended up.
Fundamentalists won’t have it, though. They insist on specific interpretations only.
Ergo, because you’re likely more righteous than I am and still want to climb some virtual, figurative ladder, here are 18 words and 1 phrase (consisting of three words) that don’t mean what many people think they do.
I worry when books claim to offer a “Thinking Person’s Guide.” It’s so ineffably elitist. It suggests that some people don’t think, that they function like underintelligent organisms.
Still, you fancy yourself a thinking person, don’t you? So these suggestions are perfect for you. Pinker does explain, “Here is a list of words, which I am prepared to try to dissuade you from using in their nonstandard sense.”
So he’s not a complete meanie.
You, as a thinking person, must become frustrated every time you hear someone say they have “appraised the board of the current situation.” This literally means they have “valued the board of the current situation.” Which makes as much sense as most of what is usually said in board meetings. You apprise the board of something. Your pawnbroker appraises a necklace you picked up in a parking lot.
2. Begs The Question.
You know what this doesn’t mean? It doesn’t mean “raises the question.” It simply means “assuming what it should be proving.” For example, when you ask the nice tight-suited man at your local Gucci store, why you should pay more for Gucci products and he says you’ll be getting “Gucci quality,” that just begs the question.
It sounds almost the same as “amused,” so some people believe that “bemused” is, perhaps, a squeezing of “being amused.” Or maybe a stronger level of amusement. It isn’t. It’s just the state of being bewildered.
Americans aren’t too good with French words at the best of times. Just ask them to pronounce — or spell, for that matter — “chaise-longue.” Clich is just a noun. It isn’t an adjective. It’s not risqu. It should be pass.
I’m (not) sure you’re not one of these people, but some believe that this means the same as “uninterested.” Because discombobulated is the same as uncombobulated, I suppose. Save it. It only means fair and balanced like Fox News.
You might be enormously disturbed by this one. Enormity does not mean “extreme bigness.” It’s true, says Pinker, that some writers insist that enormity can mean “extremely big evil.” But enormity is always evil, alright? It’s not necessarily big.
I’ve made this mistake before. I think I’m going to make it again, just for snits and giggles. Enervate does not mean, has never meant, “getting on nerves” nor “to charge you up.” It actually means to sap or weaken. Let’s face it, though, the word is just too energetic to mean that.
“Flounder” and “Founder” are often used interchangeably, unless you’re talking fish or Silicon Valley. The truth is that that floundering simply means to flap about without any useful consequences. It doesn’t mean “sink to the bottom.” Although, I suppose you could flap around without any consequences until you sink to the bottom.
I’ve sunk to the bottom with this one, too, once or twice. It doesn’t mean “lucky.” It just doesn’t. It means “coincidental.”
You’ve offered fulsome praise before, haven’t you? Perhaps even a fulsome apology. Please admit it. Please then admit that what you’ve offered is “excessively and insincerely complimentary praise.” Or, indeed, “an unctuous apology.” I’d like to offer a fulsome apology to the word “fulsome.”
You hone in on things, I feel sure of it. At least, you’ve done it once or twice. Which would, in fact, suggest you’ve sharpened in on something. I get what you mean. A fundamentalist would not be happy, however. Please make sure you merely home in on things in the future.
This word doesn’t exist. However, if you’ve invented it, I secretly admire you. For your courage, if not for creating a word that is, um, over-superfluous. There “irrespective” and there’s “regardless.” You may choose from those.
This is one of those tricky words that seems to be about merit. In a way, it is. It lies somewhere along the axis of sleazy to tawdry. It means nauseatingly insincere. Which means it cannot mean “deserving of reward or praise.” Unless, of course, you liked praising the sleazy.
This word is all about taking. It is not about creating. It means taking an opportunity or capitalizing upon it. It does not mean “creating or promoting opportunities.” So when a politician champions economic opportunism, he’s talking nonsense. But you already knew politicians talked nonsense, right? Except for Donald Trump. He’s just opportunistic.
You love setting parameters, don’t you? You’ve been in meetings where parameters were set and even drawn. But parameters aren’t borders or limits. They’re merely variables. I know it feels like a downgrade for the word. But look what the Catholic Church did to St. Christopher.
This just means shy. It doesn’t mean reluctant. Yes, shy people can be reluctant to do things. On the other hand, they could be reluctant just to do things with you. In fact, though they’re shy, they could be the most daring people of all.
Please tell me you’ve never bought simplistic art. Oh, wait. Here’s some. Never mind. But “simplistic” means “navely or overly simple.” It doesn’t mean: “Gosh, this simplicity is so beautiful that it lifts my heart to the moon.”
Roads can be tortuous, therefore twisty. They can’t be painful. If they were, they’d be torturous. They wouldn’t be tortuous. Is that logic too tortuous for you? In which case, this section must be torturous for you.
19. Urban Legend.
I know you come from New Jersey and think that Bruce Springsteen is your finest urban legend. He isn’t. He’s real. Urban legends are lovely stories told by drunken people playing poker. Stories that are entirely false. Bruce Springsteen is real. I’ve seen him in concert. Chris Christie has written him fan mail. Chris Christie is also real.
EVGENY MOROZOV CATCHES UP WITH “HELVETICA”, A DOCUMENTARY FILM ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THE NEAR-UBIQUITOUS TYPEFACE, AND FINDS IT TO BE A PERSUASIVE STORY IN MINIATURE ABOUT THE GLOBALISATION OF VISUAL CULTURE …
Gary Hustwit, a producer of documentaries and a former executive at Salon, has made his first foray into directing by a similar route–picking a narrow subject area and using it to illustrate broader truths. The narrow focus of his efforts is the typeface, Helvetica, from which his film takes its name. The broader subject of “Helvetica” is the globalisation of visual culture. Today Helvetica the typeface is everywhere: metro signs, airline logos, street ads, T-shirts, office software. “Helvetica” the film is doing pretty well too. Having premiered at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, it is on course to become one of the year’s top-grossing independent documentaries.
“Helvetica” is built around conversations between Hustwit and prominent figures in the world of type design: Erik Spiekermann, Matthew Carter, Massimo Vignelli, Wim Crouwel, Hermann Zapf, Neville Brody, Stefan Sagmeister, Michael Bierut, David Carson, Paula Scher, Jonathan Hoefler, and many others.
These conversations take Hustwit beyond the world of visual culture into many tangential areas. “Helvetica” ties together psychology and advertising, marketing and anthropology, cultural and urban studies.
Hustwit’s film marks the year of Helvetica’s 50th anniversary (MOMA has aHelvetica-dedicated exhibition for the occasion). Who could have thought that when Max Miedenger, a relatively unknown Swiss designer, created Helvetica in 1957 using Akzidenz Grotesk as a model, this would become the typeface of record for corporations and governments?
In the next few years Helvetica (known first as Neue Haas Grotesk) was used primarily by a coterie of Swiss designers and their clients. By the 1960s it had acquired its new name (a play on the Latin name for Switzerland, Helvetia) and attracted admirers by virtue of its clean, no-nonsense look.
Hustwit finds that Helvetica has its haters as well as its fans. Its use by governments and corporations has turned it into a target for conspiracy theorists holding it to account for all the pro-establishment messages it has carried. Paula Scher, a New York graphic designer and artist interviewed for the film, recalls how, back in the 1960s, Helvetica became a symbol of the Vietnam War, because official communication relied so heavily on the type.
One of the more plusible adjectives for describing Helvetica to a stranger would be “neutral”. If type is really the perfume of the city–a conceit of the film–then Helvetica has a scent that doesn’t smell. In this respect, “Helvetica” touches upon Foucaultian themes of control and power–threads that may acquire a new life in the subtle context of type design, particularly in the urban environment. Helvetica’s ubiquity on official documents and signs has come to embody a certain sense of stability and confidence in tomorrow. Planes won’t crash, houses won’t be robbed, nothing bad will happen: these are the indirect messages sent out by Helvetica type in the streets or in the office.
Hustwit’s film insists on the ethical responsibilities of designers towards society at large. The decisions they make may incline the people around them to be more complicit or more rebellious, to strive for more diversity or for more neutrality and homogeneity. A typical Western consumer sees more than 3,000 corporate messages per day.
But “Helvetica” is not only about the history and culture of a typeface; it’s also a film about their future. Perhaps the most important non-Helvetica issue addressed in the movie is what kind of impact technology and the Internet will have on the industry. The trade of type design is not immune to the invasion by amateurs, and, as in almost any other industry, the professionals disagree whether this is a good or a bad thing.
As some of the designers interviewed in “Helvetica” acknowledge, there has hardly been time in human history where young designers had more creative ideas and cheap technology available to them. The MySpace generation has grown up editing the graphics and the type in online user profiles. It may yet exhibit a totally different set of attitudes to the cultural monopoly of the Helvetica type.
On a pure visual level, “Helvetica” is a treat as well. It’s not one of those documentaries where you need a day’s supply of coffee to stay awake through a 90-minute stream of dense punditry. Nor is it another “Sicko”: you will not find provocative or shocking scenes. Instead Hustwit treats the audience to an eclectic mix of urban shots and interviews and spiced with charming music. “Helvetica” is what metrosexuals watch to get educated. If a documentary can count as “glossy”, then “Helvetica” is coated to perfection.
I confess. I’m a notebook nut. I own dozens and dozens of them. Everything from cheap reporter’s notebooks to hand-crafted Italian leather beauties.
I wondered: Am I an analog dinosaur, or are there others out there like me?
The first stop in my investigation was, frankly, discouraging.
At first glance, a Starbucks on the campus of George Washington University points to the dinosaur conclusion. So plentiful are the laptops and tablets that they outnumber the double-mocha-half-caf-triple-shot-Frappuccinos.
But when I look more closely, I spot plenty of paper here as well.
Evan DeFransciso, a 20-year-old student, says he makes a clear demarcation: digital for schoolwork and paper for “my creative writing … short stories, poems, personal thoughts.”
“The stuff that really matters goes onto the paper,” he says.
Not just any paper. He uses a small black notebook with an elastic band and a storied past. Picasso and Hemingway used an early version of the Moleskine, and now you can too.
The Italian company that makes Moleskines — all 500 versions — is red hot, consistently recording double digit sales growth.
Moleskine notebooks have grown in popularity.
Oddly enough, the analog company’s success has grown in tandem with the digital revolution. In fact, when conducting market research, the company detected something even more perplexing: a direct correlation between sales of its little black notebooks and proximity to an Apple store.
That led Moleskine CEO Arrigo Berni to conclude that his customers are “not people who are clinging to paper with a nostalgic feeling, but rather people that have both digital and analog as part of their lives.”
Yes, he says, we live in an increasingly digital world, but we “still have a need for physical experience, for emotional experiences that digital devices and technology” don’t always provide.
Besides, he adds, for so-called digital natives, iPhones and other high-tech gadgets are commonplace. Paper is the curiosity.
Consider the case of Angelia Trinidad, recent college graduate and self-proclaimed gadget freak.
Not that long ago, she found herself adrift, professionally and emotionally, so she sought out a planner, a paper planner. None felt quite right so she designed her own.
“We went viral for a whole week, and it was insane,” she says.
Friends urged her to launch a digital version of her planner, but she resisted.
“I put my foot down,” Trinidad says. “I said ‘no apps.’ ”
She has nothing against apps — her smart phone is chockablock with them — but she finds paper more intimate.
“It’s this thing that is so intuitive. It’s between you and paper and a pen. It’s kind of meditative,” she says. “When I’m on the phone, it’s never meditative. It’s always task-y.”
Paper, Trinidad says, makes the abstract tangible, in a way that digital devices don’t.
“I feel there’s a huge need for paper in this increasingly digital world,” she adds. “I look at my planner and I think of it as my second brain. I look back at something on there and it’s like, ‘Oh, I wrote that.’ ”
I know what she means. As a writer, no work feels complete until I hit the print button and it’s on paper. Maybe, though, Angelia and I are both dinosaurs, albeit from different generations.
But some recent research suggests otherwise. Pam Mueller was a teaching assistant for an introductory psychology class at UCLA. One day, she forgot to bring her laptop to class.
“So I took notes, you know, the old-fashioned way, the way I did in college — pen and paper,” she explains. “I thought I got so much more out of the lecture that day.”
She mentioned this to her professor, Daniel Oppenheimer. It turns out that he had asimilar experience in a faculty meeting. He was dutifully taking notes on his laptop but realized he had no idea what people were saying.
Oppenheimer and Mueller wondered if there was something about paper and the act of writing that explained this phenomenon, so they conducted an experiment.
They asked about 50 students to attend a lecture. Half took notes on laptops and half with pen and paper. Both groups were then given a comprehension test.
Mueller attributes this unexpected finding — published in the journal, Psychological Science — to the fact that the “analog” note takers were forced to synthesize rather than merely transcribe. It’s a phenomenon known as “desirable difficulty.”
“Desirable difficulty is some small roadblock that is in your path that actually improves your understanding of a topic,” she explains.
This is, admittedly, a hard sell on college campuses, she concedes.
“Students find it hard to believe that more content isn’t better,” she adds, “that they aren’t going to just get it all down now and study it later.”
Mueller, though, has taken her research findings to heart. Whenever she needs to truly grasp a subject, she ditches the laptop and takes notes with old-fashioned pen and paper.
Does anyone else feel that when an opportunity presents itself, you’d be a fool not to take it? That it would be a “resume booster” and an experience that could be beneficial to your overall self rather than detrimental?
Lately, opportunities have been coming at us at every angle (you might argue that’s such a great thing!)–a part-time job here, graduate school student over there, oh wait, there’s another part-time job over here too selling cricket protein bars, another opportunity to be apart of a huge app launch, a facilitator at TEDxNewYorkSalon, a summer full-time position at a major banking company, and who knows what tomorrow will bring–but it’s when we were sitting in Washington Square Park that we realized we are all over the darn map!
For some reason, we thought of “Where’s Waldo.”
Maybe it’s because the nature of Washington Square Park on a sunny-80-degrees day is reminiscent of those old school Waldo games we played as a kid…hundreds of people, activities all around, objects, trumpet players, street performers, trees, even some brave souls taking a dip inside the fountain, yet ONE Waldo. It got us thinking…
When we are not focused and disciplined on doing one thing at a time like solely concentrating on finding Waldo, we don’t have our “eye on the prize” and are blinded at seeing what we really need to see.This leads to distractions, to confusions, and to overwhelming feelings–all of which we’ve been going through these past few months.
Things are just not going the way we want them to go. We’re not where we want to be. In fact, we are so frustrated thinking about ways to grow Renaissance Swag that we are looking at every opportunity that comes our way as the ah-ha! opportunity that gets us off the ground. We’re unfocused. But the Universe has a funny way of working, you just have to be open enough to see it. You have to follow the signs and listen to your intuition.
So there we were, sitting on a bench (one of our favorite places to be), overlooking the fountain and arch, listening to this young lad play the guitar to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” and two people approach us, with a sign in hand saying “Made with Love” and a container filled with some baked goods.
“Do you have a minute,” they asked. We looked at each other, sighed a small sigh thinking, “How do we always get suckered into these raffle/fundraisers(!),” but we said, “Yeah, whatya got…” Well, let’s just say, twenty minutes later, we looked at each other again after they had walked away, this time with a smile on our face, thinking we just got “God winked,” as we like to call it or you could even say, “Waldoed.”
Their story about traveling the world for 8-months from places like Croatia, Norway, Sweden Egypt, and Italy to find homemade recipes “Made with Love” of all cultures was so inspirational, let alone mouth watering! You could see the love in their personality and the passion in their voice, so much that we recognized we had lost a bit of that sparkle ourselves. Comparing ourselves to others and trying to echo the top players in the blogging world are certainly big reasons why we feel our sparkle is fading. So it was refreshing to listen to both Leila and Anthony tell us their stories.
So here’s the scoop, for awhile now, we’ve had a vision to create a band of women looking to all sectors of thought, career, relationship status, age, wellness, culture, entrepreneurship and creating a story of Renaissance Women with 21st Century Swag – women that blend the old with the new.
This is not about pushing women to hold masculine roles contradicting their feminine inclinations, but rather, on the contrary, this is getting women to come back to their roots. We started contacting women to interview, but haven’t officially executed, letting those doubts seep in like:
“Who’s going to want to read this anyway?”
“So many other people are doing similar things? What makes us different”
“Will we be providing value?”
But then, a “God-wink.” Leila, the Co-Founder of “Made with Love,” said something that for anyone else wouldn’t mean a thing, but for us was a cue to follow what our hearts have been telling us all along…”you should interview my sister, she’s a badass woman, totally Renaissance Swag.”
ARE YOU KIDDING, ME?!?! Thank you, UNIVERSE!
You might say that was a coincidence. But for us, that was exactly the sign we needed. One simple word. One short encounter. And we are feeling more focused and driven than ever. We knew it all along, but forgot about it along the way.
The message we are getting across is this: when you focus your energy and discipline yourself to seeing the right opportunity that is in alignment with yourself then you will keep seeing the path you need to take, you will keep finding Waldo.
So what does this all mean and how can we learn from this?
1. PAY ATTENTION TO THE SIGNS.
The real problem of life is resistance. Resistance, as Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, is “a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
So by going on a spiritual path of nonresistance we are in essence, following the signs, the cues, the God-winks, and the Waldos. It is our ego that wants to tell us these signs are not what we are supposed to be doing. It is the ego that fills your mind with all those doubts and fears. But it is the self that knows what is right for your greater good. Don’t resist the signs. Follow them. You’ll get closer and closer to fulfilling your purpose.
2. TRUST YOUR INTUITION.
How many times have we heard that? Yet, how many times do we actually listen to it? Your intuition is there for you to help you in places of danger, telling you something doesn’t feel right. So too is it there for you when resistance comes knocking on your door. Resistance is louder than your intuition, but it can become weaker when we defy it and we start to listen. Listen to that little voice within, that gut response, that energetic pull. Intuition will always be there pointing you in the right direction, we just have to silence the honking that’s happening all around us and focus in on the whisper of intuition.
It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.
And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.
So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.
And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.
And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.
I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.
The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.
We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)
And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.
I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?
It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.
I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.
In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.
Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.
I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.
A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.
Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.
Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.
According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.
Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.
I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.
We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.
We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.
We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.
We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.
Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.
We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.
We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.
Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.
• This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.