Private Reading

There can be few who now need convincing that the very idea of reading in private has been a disaster for humanity. Books were never designed to be facilitators of self-indulgent introspection, but, alas, this is the dire pass toward which history has brought them and us.

Historically, hand-written books were expensive to make and own. To read a book privately to oneself was as selfish and decadent as travelling by private jet. Then, the decline. In the 4th Century, St. Augustine bursts in on St Ambrose indulging in a private and shameful practice when alone in his chambers: reading silently.

This act of scholarly onanism seems to have spread. When printing made the manufacture of books inexpensive, there was no shortage of profiteers wishing to cash in on the general populace’s weakness for private thought. Aldus Manutius was the ring-leader – a man who designed books to be small enough to secrete on one’s person. In 15th Century Venice, when a young man was late for supper, it was odds on that he had been sat under a tree, mentally – and privately – gorging himself on Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Alas, his poor parents would have had no idea.

To the present, when it is not uncommon to see people sitting on a train reading from a ‘Kindle’ or some such. The problem here is that the designers of these devices have neglected to allow the spine and cover of the book to be visible to helpful and interested onlookers. My railway companion could be reading absolutely anything, without my knowledge. It is – absurdly – frowned upon to insist that these readers clearly call out the title and author of the books they are reading.

Remember, if they can be reading anything, they can literally be thinking anything. And there is nothing that the authorities can do to stop it.

Thankfully, the tide is turning. Technology, for so long the enemy of progress, has come to our aid.

Amazon and Apple have realised that the social aspect of reading is the best part of the whole process. What is the point of reading if you can’t tell other people? The vital part missing from a room full of people with their indulgent noses silently in books is forcing them to share their thoughts and conclusions with everyone else. With tablets, we can share our insights, and the authorities can quietly and discreetly monitor them, for the good of all.

Book groups are useful here as well. How can anyone claim to have read any book until they have heard the opinions of several other people comparing it unfavourably to the Twilight trilogy? They also help us to ensure all of our ideas never fall too far from the tree, so to speak.

Hopefully, with strong leadership, we are moving toward a time when all reading is done in public and from approved lists. Our long nightmare of privacy and internal contemplation will be at an end.

 

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Towards New Voices in English. Part 2

The Middle Voice

Ancient Greek itself used the Middle Voice a great deal – a reflexive form which indicated that the subject of the verb was also the object. In Modern English it is usually used in conversations where the so-called listener is merely waiting for a pause so that they can trump any speaker’s anecdote with a more impressive or outlandish anecdote of their own.

Middle Voice users have a tendency to believe that conversations are not an exchange of ideas, but rather verbal jousts, with the ‘winner’ seemingly accruing some imaginary currency of their own invention which they can then exchange for brief bursts of self-esteem.

Experienced Middle Voice users often employ the Passive Aggressive voice to throw their duelling partners off track. Therefore, if asked about – for example – last night’s television, the Middle-Passive-Aggressive practicioner will blithely reply that he must have missed it, as he and his family were playing as a string quartet all night. However, if asked about the works of Dostoyevsky, he/she will laugh in an earthy manner and enquire if this ‘Dostoyevsky’ was the former goalkeeper for West Bromwich Albion. Thus, by making the intellectual feel out of touch, and the low-brow stupid, he/she ‘wins’ every exchange.

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Towards New Voices in English. Part 1

Many of us will have been made familiar with the passive voice in English, where the main verb’s theme is expressed by the subject of the sentence. Other, newer voices, however, may not have been properly formalised: new grammatical forms have been forming in the crucible that is our gender-neutral-parental-figure tongue. Here is one of them:

The Passive Aggressive Voice.

Here, a sentence is spoken loudly in a faux northern accent, usually in an office environment. The speaker may be expressing annoyance at a colleagues repeated failure to understand a new instruction, who is thus upbraided in – ostensibly – strong terms. However, as the rebuke is coached in a exaggeratedly comic dialect – ‘Eh ‘up, chuck, ye’s made a reet mess of that, eh?’ – and accompanied by loud but forced laughter, the victim is rendered unable to show offence without appearing humourless and petty. Other staff members often join in the mirthless hilarity, pretending to laugh at the speakers accent, while secretly mocking the victim, all the while exchanging meaningful eye contact.

Also seen on workplace kitchen signage, where huge capitals and violent underlinings vie with seemingly jocular wording to coerce workers – with no apparent success – into washing their mugs more promptly.

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Towards a Theory of Ents

Tolkien famously reminded the general reader of the existence of Ents, but many of us still need reminding that we are surrounded by them. When the subject does arise, however, the question that I and my fellow Ent researchers are often asked is: why are they all asleep?

One of the facts everyone knows about the Ents is that they speak slowly. Peter Jackson’s depiction of Entish culture – so crude as to be an insult to Entdom in other respects – got this aspect correct. Also, Tolkien’s sketch of Entish ways reminds us that the ‘true’ name of Treebeard/Fangorn was too long to say to short lived creatures such as hobbits. How could such a language function?

Consider this possibility. Chinese ideograms are often made up of four other ideograms which combine to give the new ideogram meaning. (Ezra Pound,  in ‘The ABC of Reading‘ opined that such a method of expression would naturally give rise  to a more poetic national character.) Thus, the Chinese ideogram for red is made up of the four ideograms rose, cherry, iron rust, flamingo.

Of course, Chinese ideograms are part of a writing system. But what if Ents used this system for speech? Not unlikely given the few brief snippets that Tolkien deigns to give us in his tale. When Treebeard/Fangorn tries to say ‘darkness’ to the hobbits, he says ‘deep-valley-black’. So far so good.

However, what happens if Treebeard/Fangorn attempts to say ‘black’? Does he try to use the word ‘darkness’ as part of his word-ideogram? If he does, his ‘black’ word-ideogram relies on ‘darkness’ (in part) for meaning, which in turn relies on ‘black’, which in turn relies on ‘darkness’. In short, he falls into what ‘Computer Scientists’ call an ‘infinite loop’, a recursive word tunnel that, by referring back to itself, can never escape its own definition.

Ents must have had neurological safeguards to prevent them falling into such traps, but the mental cost must have been high, slowing their speech in the way so familiar to scholars. And if the safeguards fail, the Ent has no recourse but to encounter the ‘Halting Problem‘ in its own mind, and, to the eyes of the world, fall asleep.

All sleeping Ents are merely forever looking for right word, on the tip of their bark-encrusted tongues.

This is a striking and probably correct theory, and we humans should be especially grateful that our languages are founded on more than just ever-changing subjective meanings, with no basis in pure logic. We should do everything in our power to help the custodians of our languages to protect the meanings of our words from the curse of ‘post-modern’ ‘relativism’, lest we also fall into the Ent trap.

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How to Bathe a Cat

  1. Take leave of your senses. Why would you ever want to bathe a cat? If you are already sane, consider taking handfuls of psychedelic drugs to help convince yourself that this is a good idea.
  2. Inform emergency services of your plans, and ensure they are given detailed medical information as to your blood group, tissue match types, and hospital food preferences. It helps to wear industrial strength ear protection during these conversations, so as not to hear their sobbed pleas attempting to dissuade you – for the love of God – from attempting such a patently absurd scheme.
  3. Take a wax impression of your face in the event that family members elect to give you an open casket funeral. It will make the undertakers job much easier.
  4. Leave a suicide note for insurance purposes. Insurance companies are more likely to pay out for suicide and base jumping than elective feline hydrotherapy.
  5. Clearly label each part of your body using a permanent marker. Write your name, address, National Insurance number, and a brief description of the body part.
  6. Scour eBay for a used atmospheric pressure diving suit, designed for deep sea exploration. While it was originally intended only to withstand the titanic pressures of the deep sea trenches, it may buy you valuable seconds.
  7. Set up a perimeter approximately 100m (109 yards) around the bathing zone. Ask neighbours to leave windows securely fastened and all exterior and interior doors closed and locked.
  8. Sound the bathing alarm klaxon 1 hour before the bathing event, and fire your bathing awareness flares. Run up the bathing awareness flag above the bathing zone. It is good protocol to have an all clear signal after the bathing event, but in practice these have never been known to be used.
  9. Set up a video camera or camera phone to record the event. The equipment may not survive the incident, but any records will be of great value in future cat bathing research. Also, your loved ones may be able to offset some of the expenses incurred by selling the footage to home video television shows.
  10. May God have mercy on your soul.
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Lolling

I have a strange relationship with the internets word ‘LOL’. LOL is used on the internets to communicate the wordless but audible state of human laughter. It is most commonly used to inform a fellow cybernaut of the occasion of a personal laughter moment, lest the incident should disappear, unmarked into oblivion. Unless a LOL were used, laughter would become silent and invisible, and amusing events would become less frequent, unrewarded as they would be by the encouraging peals of human jollity. (I was writing ‘laughter’ a lot, so thought I would ‘mix it up a bit.’ LOL.)

Ah, now. Did you notice what I just did there? On that occasion the LOL was a reflexive LOL. I was telling you that something I said was a funny thing, and suggesting – nay, demanding – that you join with me in mouth-noise-lung-shakes.

It is a source of encouragement to me that even simple internets people have the wit and wherewithal to create new words for their cyber purposes. Many of them have no education to speak of, but still strive to make themselves understood, rather like a starving house-cat might still strive to make itself understood to its long-dead and partially decomposed human master. Pointless and ugly, pathetic and piteous, but brave, and inspiring in its refusal to accept the grim inevitability of a lonely death. LOL.

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A State of Grace.

Yesterday was a defining moment, not only in my life, but in the lives of all those who have gums of their own. I have been marked out to stand alone among humanity: the sole possessor of perfect gums.

My mind was in a whirl. My first coherent thoughts were of my family, who have stood by me through all the sacrifices required to reach such a summit. But that was quickly followed by the certainty that now I would have to move on. To shake the dust from my shoes – dust representing my family in this painfully honest, yet striking metaphor – and move on to new pastures.

As I see it, I stand at a fork in the road. I can choose the conventional route: a series of inspirational talks, underpinned by a book launch, podcast series and panel attendances at ‘conferences.’ Or I can do what so many before me have tried and failed to do, or tried and succeeded in doing, or not tried, yet nonetheless ended up doing through a twisted thread of circumstances; namely founding a world religion focussed on the remarkable quality of my gums, rounded off by various loosely gathered ethical ideas which can be summarised into short punchy lists, and some dietary prescriptions.

The road ahead will present challenges, but gingivitis will not be one of them. You will know us by our floss. Praise me.

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