Friday, March 18, 2016

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn McEntyre

Caring For Words in Culture of Lies has been on my radar for a couple of years and I was thrilled when a friend gave me her copy. It pushed all the right buttons for me since it's about the necessity of preserving beautiful language - not just flowery words, but words that say precisely what they mean.

I underlined page after page in this book, which reinforced all the reasons why I blog about literature. Reading and writing generate an interior, where an active and sometimes contemplative life goes on, carried out through those essential elements that constitute the modern human being: a memory, a conscience, and a self.(p. 80) Basically, we are what we read. And a steady diet of drivel weakens us.

In an age of information overload, McEntyre says her students have a constant barrage of sound bites thrown at them. They hear so many words so constantly, their capacities to savor words - to pause over them, ponder them, reflect upon them, hear the echoes of ancient cadences, and attune themselves to allusiveness and alliteration - are eroding. (p. 19)

Just as we should be good stewards of natural resources, McEntyre writes that we should also be guardians of another precious resource: words. Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants. Like any other resource, it needs the protection of those who recognize its value and commit themselves to good stewardship. (p. 1)

Like food, language has been "industrialized." Words come to us processed like cheese, depleted of nutrients, flattened and packaged, artificially colored and mass marketed. And just as it takes a little extra effort and attention to find, buy, eat, and support the production of healthy foods, it is strenuous business to insist on usable, flexible, precise, enlivening language. (p. 16)

She goes on to say that as usable words are lost, experience becomes cruder and less communicable. And with the loss of the subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power. (p. 6) This is one of the chilling themes of Orwell's 1984.

Among her many suggestions and strategies for preserving rich language are 1) deepening and sharpening reading skills, 2) cultivating habits of speaking and listening that foster precision and clarity, 3) sharing stories, 4) indulging in word play and 5) refusing clichés and sound bites that substitute for authentic analysis.

This book is not for everybody, but it's a definite must-read for stewards and lovers of fine language. 


Becky said...

This one looks interesting.

Janet said...

Boy, does this ever seem relevant to public life in America these days. Empty words are everywhere.

I love the quotation about words generating an interior space. This is something I notice about writing; my interior life becomes more active and flourishing when I prime the pump by writing.

Thanks for the review!

Carol said...

One of my sons made the comment about how I write phone texts - I don't like shortening words (u instead of you etc) because it's changing the language over time. I agree so much Janet's comment above.

Carol in Oregon said...

This resonates with me. Like Carol, above, proper spelling, capitalization, and grammar are important in the few texts I write. I never allowed our boys to use the word "awesome" as an adjective because all meaning was bleeding out of that word.

Thank you for putting this book on my horizon. I hope to have it in my hands soon.

dawn said...

I *adored* the book which I read back-to-back with Alan Jacobs' _The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction_ ... I've leant it so many times and am unsure at this point who has my copy!

I have her What's in a Phrase? and am reading it slowly, slowly. I enjoy it!