Category Archives: Experience

Being, within and without literacy

"Monk by the Sea," by Caspar David Friedrich
“Monk by the Sea,” by Caspar David Friedrich

If you’re reading this, presumably you’re literate. We it for granted: being literate, seeing things and knowing what they say, reading for pleasure as much as for taking part in society. According to Walter Ong, being literate also influences the way we organize our thoughts and communicate, even orally. And we rarely question those conditions that most closely define us.

Kafka on the Shore, like most of Haruki Murakami‘s work, is a slipstream novel that melds fantasy and reality, wakefulness and dreaming. Being literate is one of the recurring themes of the book, but not one that has been much discussed. After all, there’s so much to this book: the Oedipus complex, selfhood, coming of age…

In the story, the main character, Kafka Tamura, loves books. On his fifteenth birthday, he runs away from home, and he ends up taking shelter at a library, where he spends his days reading. In stark contrast to Kafka is another character, Nakata, who suffered a mysterious accident as a child and now “is not very bright,” as he says, to the extent that he can no longer read. (But he can talk with cats.)

Nakata’s experience throughout the novel shows how hard it can be to get by in the world when you can’t read. As Nakata tells one of his cat companions, “In the human world if you can’t read or write you’re considered dumb.” Being illiterate in a literate person’s world extends far beyond simply not being able to read—which would be bad enough. (Take a look around you right now and see how many examples of written language you can see without moving.) But what’s more, literacy changes our speech, too. As Nakata says, “If you can’t read TV doesn’t make much sense. Sometimes I listen to the radio, but the words there are also too fast, and it tires me out.

Later in the book, Kafka has his own brush with illiteracy. In a dreamlike state, Kafka finds himself in a mysterious room:

As I gaze at the vacant, birdless scene outside, I suddenly want to read a book—any book. As long as it’s shaped like a book and has printing, it’s fine by me. I just want to hold a book in my hands, turn the pages, scan the words with my eyes. Only one problem—there isn’t a book in sight. In fact, it’s like printing hasn’t been invented here. I quickly look around the room, and sure enough, there’s nothing at all with any writing on it.

Given how much writing permeates our culture, how much it’s become part of us, it must be very jarring indeed to suddenly find oneself in a place where there is no writing. In this alternate world, Kafka soon discovers that libraries are very different:

“The library?” She shakes her head.

“No… There’s a library far away, but not here.”

“There’s a library?”

“Yes, but there aren’t any books in it.”

“If there aren’t any books, then what is there?”

She tilts her head but doesn’t respond. Again my question’s taken a wrong turn and vanished.

“Have you ever been there?”

“A long time ago,” she says.

“But it’s not for reading books?” She nods. “There aren’t any books there.”

Soon enough, Kafka winds up in that library. And indeed, there is “not a book in sight.”

What we come to understand is that this is a world of direct experience, instead of one of conceptualizing things through the written word. Rather, as Kafka’s interlocutor explains:

The most important thing about life here is that people let themselves be absorbed into things. As long as you do that, there won’t be any problems. … It’s like when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

Here the line between text and being is blurred. And though we generally equate “fiction” with “fake,” the real world is quite like this, too.

It reminds me of the wonderful book by Yun Lee Too, The Idea of the Library in the Ancient World. This book challenges our assumption that books make a library; rather, the library primarily constitutes people working together in a certain way. For instance, Too describes how certain educated people in Antiquity were considered to be “breathing libraries.” That is, texts can be not only in the form of writing, but also in the form of people who embody them. In other words, these people have “let themselves be absorbed” into the books.

“It’s handwritten, but not by me!”

Ah, the personal touch of a handwritten note.

Ever since the dawn of type, people have been talking about how special handwriting is. In type, the English alphabet has only 26 letters (make that 52, counting lowercase and capitalized forms), but in handwriting, there are infinite letters. Just think of all the ways you can write the letter g and have it still be recognizable. (Indeed there is an entire blog dedicated to this letterform.) When we read something handwritten, we get a sense of the personality and emotion of the writer. This is why, when printed Bibles came along, people found the words a bit lacking in spirit. And it’s why handwritten letters are so special for us, even today (if a bit sloppier).

With digital technology, we’re no longer limited to keyboards and mice for input. With trackpads and touch screens, we can combine some of the personality of handwriting with the capability of electronics. The latest update to Apple’s iOS on the iPhone and iPad takes advantage of this, giving people the opportunity to send handwritten and drawn messages. Recipients can even replay the drawing to see how it came to be.

iOS 10 handwriting feature

While exploring this feature, I was struck by what seems to be an absurdity: It comes loaded with a number of pre-written messages—hello, thank you, happy birthday, etc.—that you can simply tap and send. That is, you can send a handwritten message without actually having to write it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised—it turns out ghostwriting love letters is a sustainable business (and I feel like it figured in the plot of a novel I read once, but I can’t remember what it was).

Still, this seems tremendously weird to me. Wouldn’t a recipient find it disingenuous to receive the exact same text again and again? Though, then again, will people actually use these pre-made messages? For now, all I can do is speculate.


To word a world

The poet Muriel Rukeyser told us, “The world is made of stories, not of atoms.” Of course there is some kind of world made of atoms out there, but it’s not my world. I don’t see through atomic microscope eyes. I don’t see with utterly detached scientific objectivity. No, I’m a person, just like you, awash in the world—a world made of stories.


Too often, we seem to forget this. We seem to wish we were more mechanical. We talk about our minds as if they were computers—some even dream of a technological singularity that will obsolesce our very bodies. But this theoscientific point of view misses a whole swath of the universe: the lifeworld. Philosopher Roger Scruton presents beautifully the duality of the scientific perspective of the universe and that of the lifeworld: Whereas the scientific perspective hears sounds, the lifeworld hears music.

I’ve been thinking about worlds a lot recently. I wrote a piece on Medium about how we create lifeworlds to inhabit simply by being human—I describe in particular the ultrarunning world. And recently I saw the film adaptation of the eponymous literary masterwork The Little Prince, in which we travel from world to world. We don’t literally travel from world to world, but rather we come to inhabit others’ lifeworlds—represented in the book and the film as tiny planets.

One of the pleasures of the lifeworld is that we share it, with innumerable beings—common things like scissors and tomatoes (as oded by Pablo Neruda), and of course other people. Besides this automatic, passive sharing, we can welcome others to participate in our lifeworld by opening them up to it. We do this through communication.

One way to communicate is through the written word, a very powerful way to share lifeworlds. We tend to assume that writing merely represents—for instance, the word “tree” represents the thing in real life that we call a tree. Certainly writing does this, and some writing—above all technical writing—relies on it.

If writing could only represent, it would go nowhere in trying to create a bridge between lifeworlds. But we know writing can do more—we’ve all gotten lost in a novel, for instance, taken over by the characters’ lifeworlds. Writing evokes the lifeworld in this way not by representing, but by presenting. It’s not the words themselves, which only represent; rather, it’s somewhere between and among them where the presentation unfolds. This is what your English teacher meant when they told you, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s why a summary of a novel does no justice to the experience of reading the novel. It’s why thoughtlessly adapting a novel to a different medium can be disruptive. That’s what it means to word a world.