So after my last (and also first! ;)) rather techno-themed blog, I have been thinking along a continuation of this theme and this was given further impetus by something Stephen Fry said at the SFFuture live webcast a couple of days ago.
Here is the quote from his answer to the last question of the evening: “we have the only technology that matters: language”. It is worth remembering that, although most of us take it for granted, reading (and writing too) is a complicated skill to learn – we can all do it so well because we have had years and years of practice day in and day out, but it is not something that you can learn instantly, it takes time and effort. If anyone has ever tried to learn to read music, you know that the eventual goal is to be able to see a note on the page and be able to not only instantly know what the note is called, but also visualise where to play it on the instrument. This is very similar to reading words: eventually it becomes automatic to the point that we see the word “cat” and instantly recognise the word, BUT ALSO have a clear picture in our heads of what a cat actually is. This becomes slightly more complicated when we begin to learn more abstract words like “happiness”, “thought” and “eternity”, but Ithink that the same basic principle still applies even to these terms.
Words are incredibly powerful – we have all heard people say things like: “the pen is mightier than the sword”, for example, but this is not only true at the advanced level of using words to change the way people see the world i.e. through journalism, or writing influential works of fiction. Words are also powerful in a much more primitive sense, and this is rather cleverly demonstrated in a book called Cannibal Adventure (I know I know, but bear with me on this!) by Willard Price. He wrote a whole series (fourteen in all) of these adventure stories, all about two boys called Hal & Roger who go around the world on National Geographic-style trips to collect animals for their father’s business – he sells them on to zoos, circuses etc. The first one was written in 1949 and the last in 1980, so they are therefore slightly dated, but I still loved them when I was a kid, they were my favourite books and taught me tons of fascinating facts about the natural world. If anyone else has read them please let me know, because I have thus far only found one other person who has also read them. One! But I digress.
In this particular book, Hal & Roger go off on an expedition to New Guinea (which even today still contains large tracts of forests and mountains unvisited by “modern” man). Here they come into contact with a tribe of native people, who also happen to be cannibals. They make friends with the chief’s son, Pavo. Here is the extract:
“Hal was writing in his notebook. He noticed that Pavo was looking on, seeming to wonder that Hal should waste his time making these silly wiggles and squiggles. “Let’s show him that writing can really do something,” Hal said. “You go over to the house of one of our friends. I’ll send him over with a note and you give him what the note asks for. That will show him what power there is in a pencil.” Roger went and sat down in the doorway of a house. Hal showed Pavo a fish resting near the bank. He made a thrusting motion with his hand as if he wanted to spear the fish. Pavo nodded – he understood that Hal wanted a spear. A man had been chipping a log nearby to make a dugout canoe. Hal took up one of the chips and wrote on it “spear”. He gave it to Pavo and said “Roger”, and signalled towards the house. Pavo looked at the wood and the mark on it and seemed quite bewildered. Finally he set off with the chip in his hand and a wondering look on his face as if he thought Hal must be a little out of his head. H went to Roger and handed him the chip. Roger, without a word, went into the house, picked up a spear and gave it to Pavo. Pavo came back to Hal bringing the chip as well as the spear and looked at Hal as if he were a worker of miracles. Breathlessly he handed over the spear then rushed off to his friends waving the chip. “Look what the white man has done,” he seemed to be saying. “See this wood. He made it talk. I took it to Roger and it told him everything. It talked!” It was the first this village had ever known of the miracle of writing. For days they marvelled over “the chip that talked.””
Blimey that was rather a long quote! Apologies for that, hope you’re still with me! 😉 Anyway, was trying to illustrate how powerful the written word is, and can be. Hope some of that got across! 🙂 And of course, this blog’s subject was also a cracking excuse for getting Stephen’s name in – in the first paragraph no less! Not bad eh? 😉