At some point, I stopped reading 1984 every year.
I remember waiting for coffee once and being asked what my favorite book was. He was oh, about 45 or so years of age, and had apparently assumed that I was younger than my years at the time. I’ve looked younger than those around my age for pretty much my whole life. Even now, approaching my forties with no brake lever in sight, I still get carded when buying the occassional bottle of wine. I have a blatant streak of grey through my hair, on locs that often literally fall across my face, but somehow the occassional clerk still insists that I might be less than 21.
Now that I’m used to it, I see that this is really not a bad problem to have. Outside of certain niche situations, appearing younger than you are is advantageous for a lot of people.
Well, I found myself in one of those niche situations; while waiting for a watery mess that Shartbucket Coffee passed off as a doppio, someone from a completely different walk of life happened to strike up a conversation with me. At that point in my life I was often open to this kind of exchange so there was nothing particularly special about it to me at the time.
Somehow, the conversation turned to the topic of whether modern youth’s waning interest in what’s classically defined as literature was an appropriate litmus test for the fate of a given society. Of course, I’m paraphrasing; it’s difficult to dive into this sort of conversational obstacle course with a person you’ve only just met. For the sake of sanity, I’ve condensed the conversation.
If the kids stop reading, the world falls apart, basically, was his point.
Although I agreed to an extent that some world could become imperiled when those that would steward that world refuse to, I don’t necessarily think that everything would then become useless and barren somehow afterward.
Why Do People Stop Reading?
Populations stop reading for all kinds of reasons after they’ve started. There’s a certain barrier to entry to literacy; someone has to teach you first. No matter the vastness of your far-reaching intelligence on familiar terms, complexities built upon higher correlations are simply impossible without a baseline understanding of everyone else’s agreed and understood rules.
Literacy in one person is the result of not only that person’s efforts to learn the mechanics of a language, but the efforts of a community to teach the language to that person. For an individual with no experience to somehow gain mastery over a language devoid of contact with the living language is impossible; if it were, the hundreds of pillagers throughout history would be able to definitively understand the meaning of the pyramids and their voluminous explanatory texts, and recite them in long dead tongues before comprehensively translating themselves.
But they can’t. Not even the brightest minds the west can conjure have come up with an exception to this rule, save some semantical obfuscations, or perhaps a creative redefinition here and there.
The fact is languages die for all sorts of reasons. Throughout antiquity, there were very few universally recognized customs due to the logistical limitations of the proliferations of cultures. Local peoples have always spoken local dialects and languages. If those people were driven away from their locales to other places, they would likely find incenive to adopt the customs of the new lands.
Language is a custom that defines the plain on which communications occur. Although these hypothetical foreigners might try to celebrate their original cultures and identities when possible, they’d likely confront the eventual understanding that their culture would be different, in some ways, than another one nearby.
Languages tend to blend and become absorbed in beautifully natural ways that the sands of time have no incentive to preserve. Sometimes people have the audacity to try to defy the wounds of the clock, to bring back things that have long disappeared by writing them down; or, to silence certain inconvenient language.
Literacy Is Not A Reliable Indicator Of Intelligence
If a community is unable to support literacy among individuals, even infinite effort of anyone to obtain it would almost certainly be fruitless. By the same token, if the individual is unable to achieve literacy, even infinite support from the community would never gift him the ability to communicate without limit within the bounds of the language itself. I didn’t come up with this; this has been a known phenomena for thousands of years.
The existence of a commonly known or spoken language throughout a given population doesn’t even guarantee uniform adoption. Where avenues toward literacy might apparently exist, there may not necessarily be appropriate rates of literacy. Access could be inhibited by some other hidden geopolitical factors, but usually it’s just so much easier to blame those that haven’t been taught (in a language they probably don’t understand).
We didn’t go into all of the intricacies I’ve outlined here in the 5 minutes it took to make a simple doppio, but I touched on what topics really needed touching. I don’t usually offer raw opinions to the public at random; I don’t concern myself with a lot of the things a lot of other people seem to, and some of my ideas might be unorthodox to the point of being frankly jarring for some.
Even so, I find it necessary, at times, to correct those who imply that mastery over a language with which they’re familiar somehow automatically equates to some universally recognized level of intelligence.
So I chose the moment to do that, talking to this guy in his windbreaker, jeans, crosstrainers and a ballcap with his employer’s logo on it, waiting on my coffee. The conversation shifts to how young people don’t read and how society is dying because of it. I didn’t quite detect the accusation at first, but eventually it became clear that this person that didn’t know me yet was implying I was an illiterate young person.
In case you’re missing it, like I almost did at first: this privileged, wealthy, middle-aged White man who has never met me before just had to try and make the point to me that I was destroying society. Now, I had an understanding of his intended tone. My first instinct was to point out how people just like him were the literal cause of every major systemic woe of society. Because of the system, ironically, there was nothing I could physically do to him; there were cameras everywhere. But I wasn’t giving up just because I couldn’t slap him across his false-speaking lips, and neither was he.
Seemingly to prove his point, he asked me what my favorite book was. So I told him the truth.
“1984.” His brow furled, and his lip curled in obvious disbelief. Some people are incapable of hiding their contempt for thoughts that have never occurred to them; it makes finding the boundaries of their understanding easier. There were lots of these types around that area when I was there.
“1984 is your favorite book?” he asked sarcastically. This guy.
“Yeah, I love that book. I actually read it once a year.” The incredulous look intensified. Somebody nearby called a generically Biblical name at a completely inappropriate volume. The disbelieving White man doing his best to talk down to me raised his voice a little to be heard.
“Why on Earth would anyone read 1984 once a year?”
“Because every time I read it, reality gets closer and closer to the book.” He froze.
“JOHN, YOUR EXTRA HOT NO FOAM DAIRY FREE LARGE SKINNILLA LATTE WITH WHIPPED CREAM AND EXTRA SPRINKLES IS READY AT THE BAR,” the voice escalated, this time so close I could tell what brand of cigarettes the barista preferred. I had to get out of there, to end this conversation with some semblance of politeness, but the man with the funny look paused for a second, looked down at the counter, picked up the biggest cup. He was visibly stunned by what I’d said.
He didn’t ask for clarity because I’d been perfectly clear. He didn’t reply at all, seemingly having no clue at all how to disagree. He must have been in this place a long time, I thought, inspecting his confused gaze. Small, backwards towns in the American South tend to breed a certain homogeniety of thought, which is why small backwards towns in the American South are so unpleasant for most people that obviously aren’t from there. The man to whom I was talking? Oh, he was right at home!
He took a sip. The look softened to a quarter of an expectant, satisfied smile, which only lasted for a moment before his face twisted into a new level of disgust between swallows. Maybe it was the shock of an unexpected answer, or the fact that he’d been immediately called out for trying to push an ignorant stereotype that the only young Black man in a coffee shop was illiterate, but the man lost all coordination between his intentions and his throat before my very eyes.
A small mouthfull of John’s extra hot skinnila with sprinkles sprayed past the mans lips and spattered onto the shiny, clean floor below. With no regard for the mess, the man removed the heat sleeve from the cup in his hands and rotated it to read the description written on the back.
Clearly overwhelmed with the multitude of data that was apparently shattering his preconceived notions of everything he loved about his tiny insignificant world before my eyes, this person (who was obviously Not John) put the sleeve back on John’s cup of coffee as he turned and made his way to the exit behind us. Weirdo.
A few minutes later, a couple walked up, looking a little closer to my age. Thankfully they said nothing to me but strode directly past to the counter.
“Did you say latte for John?”
Stepping out into the rain with the tiny quantity of potent espresso clutched firmly in my trembling grasp, I reached into my jean pocket for the second half of my hangover remedy. My fingers partially collapsed a small paper box in there, which I retrieved with tender care as I made my way across the dark, wet parking lot. There was business to address.
Removing the lid from my steaming doppio, finally, I laid the freshly bent Lucky Strike, my last, on the left side of my bottom lip. Despite the moisture, my lighter sparked an immediate, strong flame and my heart rate increased as I took a leisurely, nicotine-quenching drag and let it linger in my lungs a bit before silently bellowing a thick cloud under the seating umbrella. My eyes had been open, but I was somehow just registering that the seating area was soaked and I could feel that I was definitey getting wetter. I held my medicines near the dry center of the table, lest the preciouses be contaminated or diluted.
Wet cigarettes taste awful, admittedly, but so do cigarettes in general, honestly. And truthfully, the so-called espresso I struggled through was strangely syrupy, with an odd homogenous lack of range or spice. Two shots of “espresso” were somehow bland. It was boring. Stale, even.
I wanted to believe espresso could be more than this, but I just couldn’t imagine it.
It would have to do if I were to get over that blackout hangover enough to finish my shift and make it to my second job that night. I gulped down the espresso and pulled out the small, extremely technologically advanced screen device from my pocket, instinctively pushing a button on its side.
In reply, the screen activated with a photo of a successful looking lion and the current time: 4:56. Strolling back to the entrance of the building that I hated to work a job I couldn’t stand, I finished the coffee I didn’t like and the last stale cigarette I had, genuinely bewildered as to how anyone could be confused as to why I wouldn’t need to read my favorite book anymore. Weirdo’s disbelief prevented him from actually engaging with me, besides to attempt a misguided insult, but I’m sure we both could’ve learned something that day.
That where we once feared the telescreens fixed on walls inside mandated residential buildings allocated by senseless layer upon layer of purposefully ineffectual beaurocracy, many today now can’t possibly imagine struggling through life without the convenience granted by the portable screens we carry.
Was the weirdo right? Had I read the book too much?
Do I even know how to read?
Probably not. But there are hidden patterns and symbols everywhere. Sometimes people try to show them to you using the realm of fiction. You can never tell when a person is telling you the truth when they’ve also happaned to have told you at some point that they’ll lie.
When I read 1984 the first time, I noticed odd simililarities to then present-day: the deletion of politically inconvenient facts from official records, the silencing, systematic discrediting, and clandestine assassinations of those that espouse politically inconvenient thoughts. Without a completely direct line, Wells apocalyptic depiction of a fucture fascist state with gigantic, defenseless populations of prisoners, slave laborers, and cannon fodder, all under the thumb of a few tyrannical despots with limitless power and almost no accountability with the power of constant surveillance and infinite power is a cautionary tale for future generations.
The more I read it, thinking maybe I missed something, maybe there’s something so obvious within these pages that should grant some level of solace, that it’s all make-believe and the world is on the right track, the more of these odd resonances I started to notice in my own society. I started reading the book every year to measure these alignments, throughout the passing of patriotic acts and the release of intelligence briefs from government agencies admitting to a level of peacetime domestic surveillance and data manipulation that was typically frowned upon, even when applied to foreign enemies.
The stories kept getting close and closer to the strange reality that seemed to be spiraling out of control, until somewhere along the line, I didn’t even have to read it anymore.
I could just look around.
I’ve been watching these correlations for more years than I care to recount. I avoid things that others might not. I do things that others might not do. And although these actions taken out of context might convince you in realtime that you’re seeing the deranged scribblings of a mad, tortured soul at the end of his pitiful rope, in retrospect, I’ve been vindicated. Some who insisted on my madness now seek gentle guidance at my hand. It wasn’t always like this. At first, few could believe.
Luck, blind luck, they’d say. That’s how you knew, they’d tell me. But they were wrong, wrong, so very wrong.
I knew what would happen because I’d already seen it.