Engaging The Word
Literature and Intelligent Conversation
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I Shall Tell a Lie


Time is running out.
Regardless of attempts to
snag it's foot, cajole it into
sticking around a little longer,
the door shuts with a bang.

Taken for granted,
its passing is a shock,
and raising the town to find it
won't help.

You have to engage
in an act of creation.

A friend of mine in high school and I used to come up with story ideas when we were bored in class, or just felt like not paying attention. Generally my stories would involve some serious and climactic historical event. The characters and events would all be based in fact, though a little bit embellished (improved) and edited for narrative purposes (took the boring parts out). His stories were sometimes in that vein, but usually included aliens or the sudden appearance of countless ninjas. As I learned from this friend, if you added ninjas, your story could always move from good to great. Just imagine...Louis Riel standing before the gallows, waiting to be hung. He steps up on the platform, sets his shoulders proudly, showing everyone that he is determined to betray no fear. And then fifty ninjas appear. Very quickly they beat the garbage out of all the Orangemen and Protestants in the area, and scoot off with old Louis, to help him rise again in defense of the Metis people. Maybe it was not the true story as it happened, but it was a heck of a lot more fun. At that time, however, I was a little bit skeptical.

Books for me had always been about pure pleasure. There was never a question in my mind, from the time I learned to read, that reading was, in itself, absolutely fun. Time and again I would find myself in trouble with family members or relatives who felt I was being anti-social since I had a habit of going to gatherings with a book in hand, and would spend the time ignoring the great mass of humanity around me. It wasn't that I was overly anti-social, though I was embarrassingly short of tact and grace at that time, but the problem was that people were boring. Sitting down and watching adults drink beer, talk in important tones, fun as it may sound, didn't really hold my interest. So I would read. I would sneak off into a corner and lose myself in the story. If I was sitting next to a blaring speaker (this actually happened), I wouldn't hear a sound. Immersion was total and complete, and I loved it. But not everyone else understood.

In the movies, and on television, a smart person is usually played by someone who reads, and who probably also wears glasses. Though if the smart person is the hero of the story, they don't wear glasses, and the act of reading is not directly shown, just referred to through witty quotations and sage remembrances. Remember "Good Will Hunting"? You don't really see Will crack a book, because he's smart and cool. It's only the other slobs who have to do that. Regardless, the act of reading, or being well read, is tied with intelligence. Too many times to count, people upset by my errant reading habits would snarl at me, saying "You think you're so smart." I never did have a proper answer, as I couldn't understand the insult. Reading was just so easy, and so fun. I could not wrap my mind around the idea that these other people didn't think the same way about it.

We live in an age when literacy levels are supposed to be unprecedented. A century ago, literacy levels in North America were more akin to what is found in the third world today. If literacy is so normal, and so ubiquitous, then why dos this reading-intelligence association still exist? Ten years ago, someone who was very computer literate was considered smart. Today they would be considered on par with the average six year old. The computer user = smart person equation just doesn't cut it anymore, so why is this not true for the act of reading? As with any thorny problem, it is most likely a number of reasons.

When I was speaking with Jack Whyte, who is the author of the "Dream of Eagles" series, I was questioning the role of Merlin as a sorceror in his books. Since Whyte's take on the Arthurian legends is rooted in fact and history, there should be no place for magic. But then I learned that there was a place for magic - the magic of education and learning. The time of Arthur coincides with the period following the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain. When the Romans left, they took everything with them. Not just the soldiers, but the scribes and bookkeepers and gifted tradesmen. Literally everything. Pretty soon, with no body to enforce law and order, Britain was reduced to a dark and barbarous place. Literacy and education were soon forgotten dreams of an earlier time, and truly in that time, reading was not a skill that would keep you safe from a bandit's knife. Merlin, as an educated man, would have known how to read, and to the people of that time, such a skill was magic. Here was a man who could look at little black marks on paper, and see in it the words and thoughts of other men. It was, to paraphrase a famous phrase, something sufficiently advanced that it seemed like magic. In this context, the literacy and intelligence link makes sense. Why should it still make sense in the Twenty-First Century?

Glenn Murray is the co-author of two books that are at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. Both books are of his children's series "Walter the Farting Dog." At first glance, this may seem the most juvenile, even infantile, subject for a book, and one that should play no part in the point I am making. Strangely enough, though, it does. You see, Murray is actually an educator who specializes in literacy. His passion is literacy among boys. During a twenty year career as an educator in New Brunswick, Murray came across a disturbing realization, namely that not only were kids, especially boys, not learning to read as they should, the level of reading was worse than he had been suspected. In his research he had learned that in the mid Twentieth Century, the average vocabulary of a teenager was approximately 25,000 words. Today that figure rests at about 10,000. What was worse was that he kept encountering cases where students would somehow make it all the way through high school with little or no ability to read. It was bizarre and bewildering, and he couldn't figure out why this was, until he realized something - to them reading wasn't fun. Looking at the reality, beyond the world of the school, what he found, or rather did not find, was images of men engaged in the act of reading for pleasure. Women could be seen reading, especially female teachers, but not men. Men did other things, like played on pro-hockey teams, fought in wars, or worked in factories. They didn't read. The young boys that Murray met saw reading as something girls did or that female teachers made them do. Therefore it just wasn't cool. This was part of the reason for "Walter The Farting Dog." Murray needed a story that was funny in a way that would appeal to boys, was fun to read, and which contained the depth of metaphor and sly social subversiveness that any good children's book needs. Just like Dr. Seuss used to do. Making something fun invites participation. With participation comes the absence of mystery, as the something in question becomes known, becomes ordinary. By any stretch of the imagination, reading should be about the most ordinary activity one can do, and it is, in the most basic sense. In the broader context, however, during the span of adulthood, the average person is likely to read more words on the nightly news or on billboard advertisements than are read in novels or collections of poetry. Any number of excuses are offered, most of which are along the lines of "If I only had the time." Personally, whenever I hear this excuse, a little voice in my head screams "Liar!" The truth is not that people don't have time, but that they really don't care about reading and truly can't be bothered. An excuse is offered out of politeness, or because the person is afraid to admit that they think reading is boring, or they are just too lazy to bother. But it shouldn't be this way. Nobody questions the entertainment value of movies or good television programs. Many people plan their lives around a favorite show or movie opening. Yet reading for pleasure, on the whole, does not receive the same respect. So how do ninjas fit in to all of this?

For something to be worth great large blocks of time, it has to be either very good, or very fun. For my friend in high school, dropping fifty ninjas into a scene from Jane Eyre made the story hella fun. So he would get into the nitty details of the story so as to bring his vision to life. In essence he would take a thing as is, and apply a fabrication. Beef it, jazz it, spice it up. Lie, in other words. Further, he would not just say it, but would live out the scene within his mind, with all the rampant colors and cacophanous sound included. The story would come alive.

Civilization as we know it is rooted in the bedrock of untruth. In the movies American Beauty and The Fight Club there are scenes that yank the North American funny bone because they feature an employee actually telling the boss unvarnished thoughts. Day after day, it is only the rarest person who can get along by not telling coworkers, employers, spouses, children, neighbors or strangers at least one lie. Lying, or the art of creating a subjective truth for the purposes of the moment, is something bred into humans, as a basic survival technique. But it is much more than that. Lying, ironically, is the most common method by which human beings manufacture truth. In David Brin's novel The Postman, the notion of truth is brought into question, and revealed as a subjective variable, made concrete by the act of belief. In his story, set in a post-apocalyptic America, a man walks around pretending to be a postman in order to get food and shelter in place after place. As he passes through, the sight of his uniform stirs memory, and people begin to believe his story about a Restored United States of America. The belief becomes so strong that others join him in the task of delivering mail, and bringing hope where hope had fled. By the end of the novel, the lie no longer matters, for in believing, the people who looked to the postman and followed had managed to actually create a Restored United States of America. The simple act of faith and belief created the truth out of the lie. This phenomena is not limited to theory or story. J. Edward Chamberlain, in his book If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?, talks about ceremonies of belief, and how they are fundamental to the construction of truth. Science is portrayed as a bastion of truth, but is it really? Most of the laws of science are actually best guesses. Or there is the strangeness of paradox. Light is both a wave and a particle. Two contradictory states, but the postulate is nonetheless true. Using fabrication to fit perception, is the act if crating truth. The criteria may differ depending on the person, but the process is the same.

If you look deeply enough into the matter, objective, absolute truth becomes very questionable. Death may seem absolute, but what about reincarnation or the afterlife? There are more than enough people who believe in these states to drag old Thanatos into the realm of the average schmuck. So then, what is the point of all this, then? Lies. It's all about lies. It is a fact the reading takes time. It is a fact that smart people read. It is a fact that reading is not as fun as many, many other things. Or are these facts? They are if we believe they are. So in response to that, I propose we put up our dukes, and change the tune, saying that it is a fact that reading is fun, takes little time, and can be done by the dumbest Joe Dimwit on the block. I propose that we all tell a lie to ourselves, and make a new truth. Though fifty ninjas may drop out of the sky in making this happen, I think it is worth it.

- James O'Hearn