Do you have once-a-year books?

Philip K. Dick.

Philip K. Dick.

In the writing game, I feel that you need to consume more than you produce. That is, writers should really read more than they write. Busy lifestyles command more of our time in ever thinning slices, but reading should be a top priority for anyone who communicates in a professional setting. How you divide that time is up to you: some prefer magazines, others prefer non-fiction. I maintain that a variety of styles and sources is best for a well-rounded “education” on writing. I think reading deeply is as important as reading widely. The path to mastery is not one, but many. I try to read the most pertinent in my collection at least once a year, to remind myself of certain facts and certain perspectives.

Non-fiction

Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

I’ve mentioned this book on the blog before, but it’s more relevant than ever. Those scratching their heads at how the US populace could elect a Reality TV president, this book written 30 years prior gives insight other commentators merely skirt around. I mean, we already had the Reality TV war (Iraq) and the Reality TV terror attack (September 11), was a Reality TV leader of the free world that far-fetched? Postman shows us a media culture obsessed with “feel-good” over “facts,” and the biases of our mediums that conspire to keep it that way.

Language in Thought and Action by Samuel I. Hayakawa

The “popular” text on General Semantics and language studies, a must for those who want to discover their own semantic biases and the biases of others. It too delves into logic games, multi-valued orientations vs. two-valued “absolutisms”, poetry and the advertiser, what words really “mean”, and much more. An essential book for those working in communications.

Fiction

Nineteen-Eighty Four by George Orwell

This book was one of the first I’d read in high school and has stuck with me ever since. I think I’m attracted to the linguistic element of the book, Newspeak, and the narrowing of our experience as Big Brother eliminates complex ideas. “You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words,” says Parsons, our protagonist Winston Smith’s co-worker in the Ministry of Truth. Reading it sends a chill down my spine each time. Compare “Ministry of Truth” to “Social Justice” or “Fake news.”

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

One of the first ever books I’d read of Philip K. Dick, and one that demonstrates the power of words to craft an alternate reality. The mention or non-mention of certain phrases and passages turns a world on our head, as does the revelation and suppression of certain bits of information. It’s a philosophical tome, a book about running out of time, and much more.

Do you have once-a-year-books?

 

A Word Sparking Star Wars and Real Wars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens drowned us this summer, with merchandising ranging from mascara to oranges on store shelves. Once I saw the new film, I wanted to see the original theatrical versions, undiluted by George Lucas’ meddling. Lucasfilm insists they no longer exist. Of course, legions of fans took it upon themselves to reconstruct the films using a variety of sources. The most controversial change in the first film takes place in the Mos Eisley cantina scene. (spoiler alert – but really, you should’ve seen Star Wars by now!) Green gilled and bug-eyed Greedo corners smuggler Han Solo. Han’s a marked man and Greedo’s itching to collect. In the original version, (after stalling and Han drawing his blaster) Han shoots Greedo “in cold blood.” Here’s what the shooting script says:

Suddenly the slimy alien disappears in a blinding flash of light. 
Han pulls his smoking gun from beneath the table as the other patrons look on in bemused amazement.”

Later revisions show Greedo shooting first, then Han and Greedo shooting at the same time. “So what?” you might think. This visually insignificant change is one that contains multitudes.

It’s supposed to inform viewers that Solo isn’t so trustworthy. Ben and Luke have put in their lot with this low-life braggart. We’re supposed to feel uneasy about this hasty alliance. It changes the tenor of the film. Han could have sold Ben and Luke if captured by the Imperials, left them for dead at any time, etc.

Another far more tragic example of subtle changes having long reaching effects was during the last gasp of World War II. Japan, threatened by invasion from the United States and fast running out of resources, was determined to fight until the last man. The “Big Three” (United Kingdom, Soviet Union and the US) issued an ultimatum for surrender to the Japanese. The Japanese responded in the negative, but suffered from mistranslation. A word – mokusatsuhas two meanings in Japanese. The first being “ignore” and the other, “refrain from comment.” It was the difference between “let us think about it” and “We refuse!” If the message was translated as “no comment,” the Japanese and US may have arrived at a surrender deal, preventing the twin atomic horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This misinterpretation struck consequences far beyond the imaginations of its writers and readers.

It’s a chilling lesson for clarity and precision in communication. We may think that subtle differences make no difference, although we're proven wrong time and time again. If you believe that words are your ally, do – keep in mind words might turn on you without provocation. Remember always: "Expect to misunderstand and expect to be misunderstood."