Today marks World Book Day. No secret on here, my love of reading and writing and the magic of words. I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember, I really can’t recall a time when I didn’t read; I still have those fragmentary, dream-like images of partial memory from my youngest days as a very small boy, even before school age, reading my comics, enjoying children’s books. More memories of a little older and being taken to the local library regularly by my mum and dad, and always more comics each week (those were the days when kid’s comics like the Beano etc sold in the million, every kid in every playground read them). Making that weekly diet of comics more fun was the fact that my dad would often read them too and would riff on them – each year on holiday there was a small shop that always had some US imports, including kid-friendly titles like Sad Sack, and he’d read those too then use some of the lines with me during the day.
I’ve been a reader so long my body and brain have evolved; like many readers I can breathe words. In fact like many other readers I need to breathe words. I need words like I need oxygen and food and water. They mediate my existence, my view of and interaction with, the world and they shape my response to it. And on World Book Day I would like to ask you to pause in your busy life of work, family, chores and worries and responsibilities. Not just pause to read something and refresh your soul a little, but pause and consider something so seemingly mundane, so everyday that most people for most of the time – even those of us who live in books – forget that it’s not everyday, it’s not mundane or ordinary, it is nothing short of miraculous. I’m talking about words. Language. The mere fact that somehow in our long, convoluted evolution this most remarkable faculty in the universe came forth.
Argument still rages over how our ancestors evolved this remarkable ability of language, of speech, and all that goes with it, and probably there will always be various theories over how it happened, how both our physical form (lips, larynx etc) and our mental abilities (that growing, big brain that marks out homo sapiens) both grew to make complex language possible. Other animals have communication, a very few have highly complex communication – the great whales and dolphins, for example, may well have a linguistic system as complex as ours, in its own way. But how utterly astonishing it is we have that language – we can’t conceive of thought without language, we need thought to shape language. Our linguistic ability allows us to shape thoughts, emotions, even abstract reasoning and ideas from expressing “I love you” to composing poetry to articulating the design for a rocket to the Moon.
And then we slowly learned to take those words from our lips, from our minds, and to put them on papyrus, on stone, on clay tablets, vellum, paper, digital screens. We learned to write them. And suddenly we had books – we had exo-somatic memory, that is memory that lives on outside of our heads. When the wise elders of the tribe passed away before the written word, we had only our oral tradition to remember their important experiences and knowledge. And impressive as the oral tradition of our ancestors were (think of the great bards of the Homeric era singing the entire Iliad long before it was written down, or the druids of our own land training their memories to store vast amounts of knowledge), it can never store as much information as books can, and it can’t, crucially, communicate them as widely. With Gutenberg and moving type print books moved from hand-written to mass-produced and ideas spread like wildfire across the globe. Now the internet does the same (not always in the best ways, but not all ideas are good ideas after all!).
And on this day I’d like people to pause for a moment and just reflect briefly on how utterly amazing this aspect of human life is. We sculpt ideas inside our minds, our voice can articulate them, even complex or intimate ideas, and communicate them to others. We can put those words down on paper or screen and share them with anyone who cares to read them. The written word, a medium which allows telepathy, the transference of ideas and images and thoughts from one mind to many others and back again in a complex, interactive web. And we’re so used to this casual miracle we don’t often stop to think just how amazing it is. And how amazing that we turned that astonishing faculty into an object – the written word, the book – that we can share, which can still share out thoughts and ideas and stories when we’re not present personally, even after we’re long gone, a piece of thought made into a sculpture of printed words to traverse time and space in a way our frail physical form cannot.
Science fiction is fond of the scenario where an advanced alien species judges humans and finds us primitive, dangerous, violent and demands to know why we should be allowed to continue. I would take them to one of our great libraries and simply say “we created the book.”