The Art of Reading

Language is an arbitrary collection of symbols, which is only suggestive. You cannot be taught it as if it were a science – you have to pick it up bit by bit.

You learn new words as you would learn the names of AFL football teams, randomly, each with your own special favourites. If someone were to say Collingwood to you, only the context of the conversation would tell you whether your friend wanted to say something about the suburb and perhaps its house-prices, or about its football team.

Just as you would similarly intuit what was possibly involved if someone used the word passion, speed, aggression, or American in some sentence.

I call those people ‘metaphorists’ and to some degree or other most of us fall into that category.

There are other people, a minority but by no means insignificant, I call ‘literalists’. They fervently believe that words precisely fit one and only one meaning, their meaning, as if defined by science, logic or  God.

They come in various guises. There are religious devotees who believe one must understand the ‘gospels’ literally, as they were originally, allegedly intended and written – the two most pronounced groups today being the fundamentalist Christians very vocal in the USA, and certain Muslims throughout the world who know the Koran in one and only one sense.

Literalists can hardly read poetry – its allusiveness would drive them mad. They can, however,  be adept in certain aspects of science, technology and mathematics. Then, there are certain unfortunate people, already discussed, who have a desperate urge to ‘knock and enter’ whenever they pass that sign.

( My book, “The Reason of Metaphor: a Study in Politics”, Sage Publications, New Delhi , 1991 discusses this distinction extensively – as well as the profound consequences of reading, thinking and acting accordingly)