World Book Day

I almost didn’t realise it was World Book Day today, so a happy WBD to you all. That’s WBD, not to be confused with WMD or indeed OMD, who sung about WMDs in Enola Gay, but that’s neither here nor there, although it could be at some quantum state in-between. Some colleagues and I posted a short bit on some of our current and recent reading over on the FPI blog (and no, they weren’t all SF!) to mark the day. Language must be one of the most remarkable faculties of human beings and the ability to turn that language into a solid object such as a book which can then go off far beyond the person who originated the thoughts, ideas and words within it is both astonishing and endlessly fascinating to me.

Language and thought are so intertwined in the human condition. As Lorien observed in Babylon 5, you cannot have thoughts without a language to construct and express them, but without thought there can be no real language; it is one of those chicken and egg conundrums which could drive you made if you thought about it too much. I was prodded into thinking more about it this week because this month’s Book Group meeting on Tuesday was to discuss Samuel R Delany’s classic Babel-17, which explores how language is not only used as a tool but can shape thought processes and perceptions.

Its not really surprising since language is a clever system of symbols and metaphor – after all the word tree is not actually a tree, just a word-symbol for a tree – and humans have been using some form of these symbols since the dim, dawn days of our existence. Before we had written words we painted on walls, not just as art but to tell the stories of our world and also to try and use those symbols to not only explain but to shape, partake in and control aspects of that world. Millennia later shamans, magicians and priests would all use the symbols and metaphors of icons and words to the same end; in both magical ritual and much religion the exact form of words is vital to any ceremony for them to have their effect.

To the modern scientist attempting to create a mathematical model of the universe the principle is not so very different; the writer too seeks a form of words which will rise from a page and create the desired effects when another reads them. In the beginning was the Word; thousands of years later that Word would be one of the first books to be mass printed by Mr Gutenberg’s new moveable type printing press (the most world-changing invention in human history) and it would alter people’s perceptions and thus the world around them.

In the beginning was a dream time and the world was sung into being; today the Abroginal people of Australia still use their remarkable, living paintings upon the rock to tell the tale of their past, their present and keep the songlines clear for the future. Those of us who may never see these first-hand can admire them in printed collections, making this knowledge local and global at the same time.

In the beginning was a bang, a huge outpouring of radiation, particles, fluctuating energies which would give birth to planets and birds and stars: everything. And then much later would come attempts to explain and model this event in languages of words and mathematical symbols, as arcane to most of us as magical symbols are but sharing with them the attempt to understand and ultimately shape reality.

It is all language and the book is one of the finest expressions of that language. Little paper ships of thought sailing an ocean of metaphors, with ideas swimming in the depths like whales, the ships dock in the port of the human mind as the book is passed from person to person. If language is a part of us then books become an extension of us; we should never take them for granted.