It is no understatement to say that I read whenever and wherever I can. Reading is my absolute favorite activity, bar none. I read everything I can get my hands on; books, essays, newspapers and magazines. Every night, before going to sleep, I will read as much as I can before drifting off. I devour books, going through 2 or 3 a week. Over time, I have progressed from slivers of texts to weighty tomes of exposition. I can give thanks to a single person for many of my reading habits, and that person is my father.
In a effort to encourage reading, John Fitzpatrick told his four children many years ago that there was a unlimited budget for books. I asked for this statement in writing and immediately set forth to enjoying this privilege to an extreme. When I was eight years old, I read story books about spaceships and dragons, and heroics where the good guys always win and evil is always vanquished. Slowly, as my adolescent mind developed, I started to read things that were more complex and intellectually challenging. Following the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Louis Stevenson, I started reading books such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders and The Portrait of Dorian Grey. By freshman year, I was reading books by Herman Hesse, Nobokov and Dostoevsky. Each book expanded my horizons and introduced new questions to my mind. My father learned the unintended consequence of his policy as it applied to a prolific reader: an unlimited financial liability. He attempted several times to renegotiate the terms of our agreement but gained only one concession: limiting the number of books that could be purchased at a single time (solution: more trips to the book store). I continued to read voraciously, adding newspapers and magazines to my love of fiction.
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Each story taught me something. Every story challenged my thinking in large and small ways. One book has been particularly instrumental toward shaping my thinking: George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. This small book influenced my thinking on topics such as freedom and control. The aspect of the book that I would like to focus on is the concept of “Newspeak.” Newspeak is the constructed language that Big Brother creates. It is related to English, but is a reductionist language. The language seeks to eliminate all synonyms and antonyms. All words with a negative meaning or connotation were eliminated. Instead of having the word “bad”, in it’s place was the Newspeak word “ungood.” Words with a superlative meaning such as “excellent” or “superb” were all replaced by the Newspeak word “doubleplusgood.” The purpose of the language is to extend control over the people who speak and think in it. Newspeak is meant to make rebellion and “thoughtcrime” impossible by removing all words that express such concepts. The stated end goal of this language is to make the only thought that Big Brother’s subjects can think is “yes”.
So how has this concept of a constructed language influenced my thinking? I became more aware and sensitive to the power of language. Some governments have the ability to censor books and news to remove anything or anyone that challenges goals or ideals. The censorship of language is even more ominous because this removes the ability to verbalize ideas or question discrepancies between words and actions. Simply, if words do not exist, feelings and concepts cannot be conveyed between people and within societies.
Knowing this, it is interesting to note that a 2011 edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has just been published by NewSouth Books, replacing the word “n*****” with “slave” and eliminates the term “Injun.” The 216 uses of the word “n*****” and “injun” were replaced with the “politically correct” word “slave.” Critics of the NewSouth Books edition question the removal of the actual words that the author wrote.
Storytelling is not random, each word has a place and a specific purpose in a piece.
I do not believe that Mark Twain would have agreed to remove the words which conveyed the cultural and historical context of his storytelling. Mark Twain was satirizing the racism that was endemic within his society. As evidence, a quote by Twain provides insight into his thinking on this very matter: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
In chapter three of Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell writes “…if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.” He further writes, “Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.” Orwell continued by saying, “…nor was any item of news…which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record.” The sanitizing of a now historical novel to meet the political needs of the moment robs the story of its essential truth about the racism rampant in 1884 Southern society.
I hope this essay gives you an insight into my reading habits and highlights a novel that continues to be relevant today, not just to me, but to society as a whole.