Tripping It

Lehighton (PA) Times News

November 4, 1969


According to many philosophers, anthropologists and other assorted learned sorts, the basic item of being that sets man apart from other life forms on this planet is his use of a written language. Other animal forms share virtually every other attribute with man: a psychological hang-up is not unique to man, in that monkeys can be just as paranoid as an insurance broker; a spoken language is supposedly quite common in a very rudimentary form in canines; and certain crustaceans find old sea shells and crawl inside of them as a sort of rough clothing to protect them from their particular environment.

The basic writing ingredient of homo sapien is present in almost every society on earth: from the most primitive African bushmen to the most advanced civilizations going. As can be expected, the higher the cultural development, the more complex the language. We can, for example, compare the simple cave drawings of prehistoric man with the computer-inspired analytical annotations used by today’s scientists.

We can also recall, if we think back to those hazy days of first grade, how difficult it was to learn basic essentials of the English language. It is not difficult to reconstruct those early days hunched over the desk with the ink well that never had any ink in it, with the bright yellow paper and the clumsy pencils in hand. The standardized examples of what your A’s and B’s should look like stretched around the room above the blackboard, white on black, with the very flowing script in the Palmer method. And every time you saw the smooth-flowing penmanship of your teacher the questions suddenly came to mind: “How am I ever going to have enough years in my life to learn to write that well?” And, when it was story time in the first grade, and the teacher pulled down one of the story books from the shelf and laid it open on the desk and began to read from it, the logical question was: “How can she read so fast?” as you struggled with a few of the more elementary words in the sentence she was on.

When we look back at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that were present in that first year of school, and the years following, it seems nothing less than a minor miracle that we ever learned to read and write. But most of us did—in one form or another.

It is very common knowledge that most Americans can read on the level of the present-day sixth grader. (Some estimates are lower than that, but let’s be liberal about it.) Their aptitude for writing seems to be even lower. Many “experts” blame this lack on the inception of television, and the resulting fact that you can be “fed” the message from the tube, rather than having to work for it. This theoretically dampens the modern man’s interest in written matter. Yet we are in what can only be called a book boom, as thousands of new books are published every year, and the book publishers obviously aren’t in business to lose money, so logically following, someone must be buying them.

We are stuck with the other side of the coin from the man who forgets how to read and write once he leaves the confines of the schoolroom: mainly, the bookworm or the reading fanatic. This can be a sadder state of affairs than a person who is addicted to drugs or who spends half his paycheck on cigarettes and booze.

The reading fanatic spends much of his time as a hermit, shut up with his books, each one of which is a precious gem to him; he spends very sizable chunks of his paycheck on books, whether to read or for exhibit in his growing library; he becomes a walking information machine, but seldom finds anyone who is interested in listening to all the things that he has found out from his hours of reading; he may bet caught up in a book and forget about important appointments, neglecting his family and friends as he locks himself up in the den to pursue the higher thoughts of man.

And the final stage before oblivion: he has got to have something to read all of the time! It is like a mania. Perhaps he can call it bibliomania. He reads the graffiti on the rest room walls as he ponders his fate; he reads every word on advertisements and posters in buses, even down to what company printed the sign; he reads the riddles in the bottom of Fanta soda cans, and then rummages around in the waste paper basket looking for cans that someone else has thrown away so that he doesn’t miss one.

He knows that when he uses the new Gillette Self-Heating Shaving Cream that “two heat-producing agents are brought together ran instant before the lather comes out. It gets approximately 150 degrees hot within 15 seconds.” This from a mere trip to the bathroom, where he forgot to leave a magazine lying on the radiator to occupy his time.

And what can he say when the conversation bogs down on a date? Is a girl going to be impressed with the fact that “there is 3.65 percent sodium dodecyl benzene sulfonate in a can of Ajax cleanser?

Maybe we should have a long talk with the people who are pushing to bring down the illiteracy rate in this country…or maybe we could leave a message to that effect taped to the underside of a can of Right Guard…?