Sunday, November 1, 2020


I’m sitting out on our sunny deck, martini in one hand, a novel in the other. When I’m outdoors, though, I find it hard to concentrate on a book. My senses get continually plucked at by more immediate wonders— the bees flitting from one blossom to the next in our window boxes; a few early chimney swifts darting and twittering overhead; the three-legged mutt sniffing the lawn across the drive.

And then it comes to me, the perfect reconciliation of the purely escapist act of reading with the curse of my nagging, here-and-now awareness: a momentary indulgence not of the novel, but of the wonder of reading it.


       Each of hundreds of thousands of
       letter assortments nearly instantaneously
       elicits meaning.

I don’t mean just the miracle of an author’s ability to make up a very long story that manages to elicit another person’s knowing and feeling. I mean the whole idea of looking at a bunch of odd little shapes strung out in various sequences, and effortlessly decoding them all at a glance.

There are roughly 6,500 languages and 3900 alphabets or writing systems in the world. With the numbers of characters in each of them ranging from Rotakas (Papua New Guinea) with only 12, to Chinese, with at least 8,000, that makes for a staggering number of those little shapes and symbols literate human beings routinely memorize.

But let’s say one speaks only English. There are just 26 letters in the English alphabet (a few of them elucidated with accents). The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use. And let’s say one knows only a third of those words. That’s about 57,000 words, 57,000 unique combinations of those 26 tiny, cryptic shapes.

And that’s just the present-tense, infinitive forms of the verbs, the absolute forms of modifiers and the singular form of nouns. Not to mention various compound forms and other variations. Well, you get the idea: each of hundreds of thousands of letter assortments nearly instantaneously elicits meaning. This mastery of reading many of us so take for granted is nothing short of phenomenal.

       Isn’t reading outdoors simply a choice
       between a real, immediate perfection and
       an imaginary scene borne in black marks
       on white paper?

So, I’m reading this novel. I don’t really think about each word, much less each letter.

As one who’s learned a second language as an adult, I know there’s this incredible moment when an intermediate-level learner’s multi-step reading process rather suddenly distills down to one step. One moment you’re seeing the word, perhaps tacitly pronouncing it, translating it and finally seeing the meaning in your mind’s eye.

The next moment, no sooner do you see the word than that image appears. You’re no longer translating; your brain has made a direct connection from word to image—perhaps even to emotion.

There are words…and then there are compositions. Like notes of music that combine into rhythms and harmonies, words, when well-chosen and creatively sequenced, far transcend their individual values to make magic.

While even a pedestrian writer might accurately describe, say, a bar scene set in the old West, a gifted one will do so in a way that captures not just who and what can be seen, but evokes the ambient sounds, the quality of the air, perhaps even how the crusty cowboys smell.


Like everything else in my wondering world, reading, now that I’ve picked it up and examined it from a few different angles, has transformed from a curious trifle to a treasure. Seeing it that way, I might never again open a book or log into a blog—or read a billboard for that matter—with the same nonchalance.

Does this mean I’ve finally found a way around my lifelong dismissal of reading outdoors as simply a choice between a real, immediate perfection and an imaginary scene borne in black marks on white paper? We’ll see…


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