The year is 1984. George Orwell’s dystopian future has arrived. Ronald Regan is president-elect, and Wes Craven’s nightmare occupies Elm Street. Not only is it a leap year, but it is the year of the rat, according to the Chinese Zodiac. Haruki Murakami places the finishing touches on his fourth novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Trevor Noah is born a crime under the apartheid regime in South Africa. Prince crawls across a floor of purple violets in the music video for Billboard’s number one song, “When Doves Cry.” Yugoslavia hosts the Winter Olympics, and people worldwide gather in Los Angeles to watch athletes compete in the Summer Olympics. William Gibson’s debut cyberpunk novel Neuromancer hits the shelves. Oprah Winfrey relocates to Chicago to host her first talk show.
Across Lake Michigan, on the other side of the state, the Detroit Tigers defeat the San Diego Padres in game five of the World Series. Mary Oliver wins the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for her collection of poems, American Primitive. Beyond the horizon, American astronauts Bruce McCandless II and Robert Stewart take a five-hour walk in space untethered for the first time. A member of the Muscogee Nation and poet Joy Harjo takes home the honor of Outstanding Young Women of America at 33 years old. Architect Richard Saul Wurman hosts the first TED conference in Monterey, California.
After seven years of construction, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opens its doors on Cannery Row. North on the 101, Steve Wozniak attends the first Hackers Conference in Marin County organized in response to Steven Levy’s book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Wozniak’s future partner Steve Jobs launches the Apple Macintosh. On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Raiders dominate the Washington Redskins in Tampa, Florida, for Super Bowl XVIII, the same Super Bowl that airs Apple’s famous commercial promising to revolutionize technology so that “1984 won’t be like 1984.”
As Apple connects technological innovation to individual genius to inspire cultural consumption that will transform our lives, an early precursor to the iPhone is unearthed halfway around the world. Archeologists discover two small unbaked clay tablets in Tell Brak, Syria. These small stone slabs predate the iPhone by approximately 6000 years and are thought to carry some of the earliest written inscriptions.
Housed in the Archeological Museum of Baghdad, Argentine-Canadian author, Alberto Manguel, a devoted reader and friend of the Argentine writer Jorge Luís Borges, will visit these clay tablets five years from now, in 1989. Inscribed upon the tablets are depictions of one goat and one sheep with a marking thought to signal the number ten. Manguel traces the origins of writing to these tablets that farmers used to communicate the quantity of livestock:
Tracing the history of reading to these Sumerian tablets affirms Plato’s fears articulated in the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus that writing externalizes memory and hinders remembering.
The more I consider Plato’s concerns, which are often dismissed for being Luddite, the more I appreciate them. Writing does externalize memory, but that is not necessarily the problem. His concern was less about the technology of writing and more about our misuse of it. He differentiates reminding from remembering, insisting that writing remedies reminding but hinders remembering.
This new technology, Plato feared, will give the appearance of wisdom but will not foster authentic learning. Why? Because we fail to integrate the past into the future or connect what is behind us with what lies before us. This is how we read to transform 1984 and pursue wisdom and wonder. George Orwell’s 1984 cautions us against reading to recall information. When we do, entire histories are thrown away down memory holes. We must read with an inclination to the text, purposely foregrounding wonder and pursuing wisdom.
Plato says philosophy begins in wonder. It is possible to learn from Plato’s concerns and reorient ourselves toward what we read to lead to wisdom and wonder. We can internalize writing in a way that transforms how the reader lives and creates culture. Had Plato experienced this transformation, he might have felt differently about writing. He might have realized that reading with the body leads to wisdom.
Reading requires bodily participation, but this is who we are and how we live. We do this perpetually – reading is making. We make connections, and we form relationships. That means when we read, we integrate language into our lives and internalize the lessons of each text.
The problem is we do not read in a way that increases remembering. We do not heed the warnings of 1984 and only regard reading as a means of extracting information. We fail to participate in the meaning-making process and forfeit the potential for transformation. We often think reminding is the goal of reading, applauding technologies like writing and computers that aid our ability to recall information.
Reading is not just a response to writing, it is an act of perception, and perception is about orientation. If we embrace this and orient ourselves to texts with a different posture, reading can change how we live. Readers perceive phenomena from waves to stars to words to tears. There is no end to the potential texts a reader interacts with, but how a reader interacts with the texts before her changes everything. Come, reader. Take a deep breath.
In his book, Attunement: Architectural Meaning After the Crisis of Modern Science, Architect Alberto Perez-Gomez describes how a visitor transforms a space every time she visits it, just like the reader renews a poem every time she reads it. The relationship between the reader and her text is marked by mutual transformation, one that we can characterize by breath. The nature of this relationship depends on the reader’s orientation to her text.
With orientation in mind, Irish philosopher Richard Kearney likens the reading experience to a double movement of Janus facing two directions simultaneously. In one direction, back toward what is revealed, and forward toward the language that does the revealing in the other.
Janus was the Roman god whose name meant passage or doorway and whose presence symbolized beginnings and endings. The reader, like Janus, is open to this double movement.
We know orientation is spatial and temporal, leading German novelist Thomas Mann to consider the profundity of Janus symbolically representing the new year.
Instead, Mann says we mortals ring bells and fire off pistols to mark time. Acknowledging our role in this meaning-making process is critical, whether god or mortal.
Still, Richard Kearney takes it one step beyond bodily orientation when he acknowledges that this double movement happens at the level of language. Reading a text not only produces the meaning of the text but also opens up new horizons for the reader. We see this double movement further manifested in our relationship to memory and place.
Echoing Heraclitus, we never enter the same river twice, but not only because we have changed. The river, like the text, remembers us. If we read to remember, we exchange energy with our texts. We experience wonder and awe as we are metabolically and spiritually transformed. Memories, like language, do not stand still but lead the reader toward the wisdom that carries the past into the present moment while facing forward to the future to build a better world.
It is still 1984. Chronos and Kairos have nothing on Janus.