How will future readers perceive our written words?
What would a time capsule of written text from the last hundred years look like? Would it tell a tale of truth versus deception, inspiration versus surrender, or clarity versus confusion? If the contemporary literature quotes shown below were included in the time capsule, how do you think future readers might react to them or think about us?
Sources appear at the end of this post.
How do written words lead to empathic growth?
Fiction is a tool that reflects, much like a lens, how a reader relates to real people. According to Julianne Chiaet in Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, it matters what type of books we read. In five studies reported in Science magazine in October 2013, two researchers divided people into reading groups with different assignments. Some people read popular fiction, while others read literary fiction, nonfiction or nothing at all. The researchers, Emanuele Castano and David Kidd, discovered that when participants read literary fiction, such as The Round House by Louise Erdrich, their test results improved significantly in terms of their capacity for empathy. Chiaet’s explanation for this is that literary fiction focuses more on the psychology of characters and their relationships, while popular fiction is formulaic, portraying situations that might be a “roller-coaster ride of emotions and exciting experiences,” but which also feed into the reader’s expectations of others. In other words, it does not increase their capacity to empathize.
How did ancient people use the written word?
Once upon a time, an ancient Sumerian from 3000 B.C. scratched words upon a tablet later found in Iraq. This tablet, which records the birth of an an individual named Sargon and describes an argument with his king, Ur-Zababa of Kish, is one of our earliest written records. It also illustrates how written words were used in early times: for birth and funerary records, accounting, and counting purposes.
Later, the ancient Egyptians developed three types of scripts—hieratic, sekh shat and hieroglyphic—for sacred writings, ordinary records, and monument inscriptions. Hieratic was used to tell the stories of gods, goddesses and pharaohs. Sekh shat (also known as demotic script) was used for counting crops and animals, letter-writing and governmental records. Strictly speaking, hieroglyphs were pictograms found on temple walls or public monuments, such as the Pyramids.
How do modern people use the written word?
Today, written words are used in more ways than ancient people ever conceived. At their best, they entertain, educate, inspire, counsel and encourage us. The influence of the written word begins early in childhood and has lasting effects. My mother, for example, never took education for granted. She grew up in World War II Germany, when her schooling was literally interrupted by bombs falling from the sky. Library books were mostly not an option, as they were not free to borrow. Because of this, she appreciated the benefits of a public school education and took seriously the written parent/teacher reports she received about the academic progress of her four children. She encouraged all of us to make the most of our schooling. “Nobody can take your education away from you,” she told us repeatedly from the perspective of a naturalized citizen who was proud to be American. Of course, this is not so true for many black or brown American students who may not have the same educational opportunities as others. But my mother’s intent was to make sure we appreciated and used the education we were provided at no cost.
My mother was also concerned with our friendships. During World War II, her classmates joined the Hitler Youth program, something she was not, as the daughter of a Lutheran minister, allowed to do. She was too young to understand the ramifications at the time, but as an adult, she realized what might have transpired if she had been allowed to join. My mother used to advise us, “Tell me with whom you go, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Our son became familiar with these words which are now framed and have a special place in our family room.
Young children need role models who can inspire them. When our son was in grade school, his teacher asked everyone to choose a famous person and write a speech about that individual’s contribution to society. My son researched John F. Kennedy and memorized his well-known words spoken during his Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
My father, who also grew up in World War II Germany, wanted to master English. It was important to him that he be able to read, write and speak like others in his adopted country. Although he was in his 20s—long past the time of high school when he arrived in the United States—he approached the principal of his community high school to ask if he could enroll in 12th grade classes so that he could practice his English skills. When he got married, he began subscribing to Reader’s Digest, whose “Word Power” quizzes he clipped and collected to keep up his vocabulary. My father’s focus on language learning enabled him to connect well with others—not only his employers, but also middle school students he met when he taught religious education classes, and with our friends, whom he coached in extracurricular activities.
For people involved in faith, politics, government, science, business or the arts, written words can connect, advertise, negotiate, reconcile and effect change. But they can also denigrate, discourage, confuse, and divide us; they can incite fear, hate and violence. I cannot think, for example, of a more divisive Presidential election than the one that just took place.
How do we preserve today’s written words?
If you don’t think the written word endures, look no further than the Open Library that is maintained by the Internet Archive. This non-profit organization, based in San Francisco, archives books that are out of print. The articles my father used to collect can be found in a Reader’s Digest anthology, How to Increase your Word Power, through the Open Library Internet Archive. You’ll need to sign up for an account, but this is easy and free to do. The Internet Archive also maintains the Wayback Machine, which has been archiving Internet content for 20-plus years. When I visited the Wayback Machine, I discovered that many of my blog posts have been archived there since 2010.
For better or worse, written words—and for that matter, spoken ones—have lasting consequences.
Sources for book quotes at the beginning of this post:
- Quote 1: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin (winner of the HUGO and NEBULA Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year)
- Quote 2: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (National Book Award Finalist and 10 Best Books, The New York Times Book Review 2014)
- Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/
- The Evolution of Writing, https://sites.utexas.edu/dsb/files/2014/01/evolution_writing.pdf
- “Writing,” Ancient Egypt, http://www.ancientegypt.co.uk/writing/home.html
- “Hieroglyphic writing,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/hieroglyphic-writing
- John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, https://www.ushistory.org/documents/ask-not.htm
- Open Library (Internet Archive), https://openlibrary.org/
- Wayback Machine (Internet Archive), https://web.archive.org/
© 2021 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.