On Liberty

On the occasion of the campaign group Liberty‘s 80th birthday, the Guardian published the thoughts of such writers, thinkers, and activists, as Julian Barnes, Edward Snowden, and Shami Chakrabarti, on the topic of liberty. I highly recommend that you read it, and to that illustrious list, I add some of my own thoughts below.

On Liberty

Of the many things that are passed down to us, our individual freedoms and liberties count among the most important. Codified in law we are protected from overreach and abuse by the state, but we cannot live off past triumphs forever. And there have been some major triumphs – the UN Declaration of Human Rights, The Geneva Conventions, The International Criminal Court. Yet these achievements are not monuments for us to admire; they are not merely to be a reminder of our forebears’ courage and intelligence. For if we treat them as such, they will surely become so.

As with any monument left out in the cold for too long, they will be corroded by the political climate, denuded one liberty at a time, as we are made to believe that it was only the loss of ornament and nothing fundamental. That is until one day the monument is toppled in an inverted revolution. If we have walked past it every day with our admiration turned to indifference, how will we notice if it is gone?

These liberties we possess are strong and they give us strength too, but, like us, they are not indestructible; their vulnerabilities must be met with energy and vigour. Campaigning, letter writing, petitions, protests, defending the powerless, donating time and money, correcting always the self-interested arguments of the powerful, and guarding too against our own exploitable prejudices. If we do nothing, we will find our revered monuments to be made of sand, which as Jimi Hendrix sang, “And so castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually.”

To see what you can do, please consider visiting the websites of Liberty, PEN International, Amnesty.

Due Care and Attention

This birthday cake is literally as big as a house!

Assuming that Heston Blumenthal were not involved in the baking, the cake is almost certainly of standard proportions. It’s an oft-lamented and well-noted abuse of language, the use of literally when figuratively were the correct choice of word, thought it’s worth noting that the noting of such has apparently done little good. I confess to feeling annoyance too, but I do my best to remember that I probably also transgress other rules of grammar and meaning, offences of which I remain ignorant. Matthew (the safety conscious) 7:3.

The example I gave above, no harm done, but imagine if our imaginary speaker had said, “I’m literally going to kill you!” We may perhaps assume from the context of the speaker themselves that they don’t mean it literally, but then we also shouldn’t prejudge their character, so perhaps we should assume that they mean it after all. If so, our actions should be appropriate to the situation. Whatever their subsequent denials, the semantic cat is out of the bag and he won’t go back in without a fight. Get the antiseptic at the ready.

It is held that ignorantia juris non excusat, that is, ignorance of the law does not excuse. My question is, if ignorance of the law is no defence, then is ignorance of language no defence either? If you were to utter the threat above, should you be arrested for making credible threats of violence? Or perhaps we could institute some lesser offence – talking without due care and attention?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part Two

In last week’s blog post I considered how a self-destructing book might alter the approach we would take to read it. This week I continue on the theme, taking that cautionary tale into the realm of possible nightmare…

Imagine that your self-destructing book now disappeared word-by-word, line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence. Read too slowly and the words would disappear before you even had chance to look at them. It’s a booby-trapped book – as soon as you open the front cover the timer begins to tick, and won’t stop until it has devoured all of the words.

Presented with such a gift would you start at the beginning and try to read fast enough to stay ahead of the wavefront of disappearing ink? All done in the hope that you were not reading so quickly that you weren’t actually reading at all but merely glancing over the page with deadened eyes. Or would you start further in, sacrificing the front portion of the book in the name of the latter pages? That way all the better to absorb the words that you did manage to read. Either way you lose.

There is an app, Write Or Die, aimed at encouraging writers to overcome the hesitancy of perfectionism and creative block, to “just write”,  by gradually deleting their words if they type too slowly. Perhaps it’s time there was an equivalent for the reader? Previously beyond technical reach, the app as literature opens up these new possibilities for the form and allow us to examine our relationship with a text.

Imagine now the next step in the evolution of this self-deleting book: we join it not at a clearly defined beginning, but catch it at wherever it happens to be in the story. We don’t know how much we have missed, we don’t know how much is to come. Would you want to read a book like this? In some sense this book would be the epitome, the very embodiment, of realist fiction. Life happens and once the moment is passed, all we have is our unreliable memory of it. Moreover, as we soon learn as children, life is happening continuously, whether our eyes are open or not. The ephemerality of life and text become one. In such circumstances the oral tradition might once again become preferable.

Assuming that you did decide to enter into this mirrored reality, what if it was the most enjoyable and interesting that you had ever read? So captivating that the thought of having to stop is unbearable. You’d have to eat, sleep etc. at some point though, and while you were gone, the words would continue to appear and disappear, and you’d never know what they said. Worse, the subsequent material might no longer make sense and you might no longer enjoy reading it. That great pleasure of your life would have vanished. And so perhaps you’d try to keep reading and reading and reading until your met your demise.

The final situation I’ve described seems to me to be analogous to “The Entertainment”, the fatally addictive film in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A film which, by the way, claims more than a few victims in that novel. If a book like this existed – one both potentially unending and maximally entertaining – would you choose to read it? Would you dare take that risk? Or would the risk lie in not reading it?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part One

Your mission, should you choose to accept it… As always, should you or any member of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

Fortunately, most objects are much less prone to self-combustion than the tapes and discs handed out to members of secret spy teams. Imagine though, for a minute, if our books did behave like that. What would it do to the way you approached the text? First though, the acknowledgement that paper books already are self-destructing – the paper will yellow and then crumble and the ink will fade under daylight – but the processes by which this happens move so slowly that, outside of history departments at universities, no one really gives it a thought. However, if the rate of destruction were to be increased by several orders of magnitudes, from centuries to days or even hours, such that the destruction is likely to happen whilst we are still reading, then we might not be so blasé.

The first thing you notice is a pleasant warmth in your hands, something to counter the artificially-chilled room, followed closely by the delicate smell of smoke, the source of which your repeated sniffing is unable to discern. You look down and see the energy manifest as the visible. You drop the book to the ground and stamp on it, but tenderly, trying to quell the burgeoning flames, at the same time looking for a glass of water, anything wet, to quench the fire. But it’s too late, the book is far more burnt than not, and you give up. The words are no longer yours to read, its wisdom, poetry and pleasures taken away from you forever and you must walk away and try your luck elsewhere.

Suppose that this spontaneous combustion were not the product of TV spy-craft or the overactive imaginations of internet conspiracy theorists, but a well-documented risk associated with all books. Trojan books that are the logical conclusion of those destroyed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. What would it do to your pace of reading or your approach to the text if you knew that the next time you returned to the book it might no longer exist?

Would the book be more valuable due to its potential scarcity or less so as a now unreliable storage method for information? Once you’d acquired the book would you try to read it deeply to maximise your enjoyment and insight from those sentences that you had read, or would you read it quickly hoping to find the most important bits of the book before they disappeared in flames? Would you take notes as you read or try to copy each page wholesale? Or perhaps you’d decide to abandon the book as a format and occupy your time with something entirely different?

Now, I confess, this is all merely a hypothetical danger, no one is going to make and sell a book that could scar the reader or burn down their house. The publishers’ legal departments would see to that. The firemen of our society are not those of Bradbury’s fictional world. We’re safe after all, sorry to have alarmed you.

Ebooks, on the hand, burn with a cold flame: delete the file and smother the memory chip with layer upon layer of random binary digits, the original document now rendered truly irretrievable. As it happens, the terms of service of ebooks bought via Amazon or Apple, mean that the book can indeed vanish in that manner, as these cases here and here, rare though they may be, confirm.

So I’ll ask again, how would this change the way you view your books?