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A Tale in Writing

By Martin Vermeer

A tale in writing

I suppose most of you are like me, every evening watching the tv, and on friday going out and renting the latest DV's from the corner store. Everybody does that; after work, you want some fun and don't want to think too much, and those stories are quite good, actually. Of course they all look the same, after a while; I suppose that's what you get when one company is controlling all production. But at least it's safe for the kids to watch. You know what to expect for your money.

Now the other day, a couple years ago, a funny thing happened to me. A friend -- I won't tell you his name -- put this thing into my hands. A small rectangular thing, you could put it into your pocket. No power chord; funny. And you could open it, just like that. Inside, sheets and sheets of white paper bound together; and on those sheets, small black marks, thousands of them. You could open the thing -- a book, they call it -- at any point; it is random-access, just like a video disk, if you know what I mean. Not like those oldfashioned video tapes that you have to reel to get to the point you want.

Now the most fascinating thing about this book, and those black markings: they mean something! Some people actually look at them and get the meaning straightaway, turning page after page, taking in a complete story as if they were watching it from the DV screen. I looked at it with amazement. It was really baffling -- there were just these black signs on the paper, rows and rows of them, letters and words and sentences -- and as dead as doornails. But the moment someone capable of taking them in, looked at them, they turned into a living story, with really living people talking back to the person looking at the book! You know, I got all worked up about it, when the reality of the thing was finally penetrating. Some of those words even referred to non-existing things. Boy, this was wild stuff!

I wanted to learn this too. I told my friend, and he said "you want to learn to read? Sure!". That's how I started learning to read books. It wasn't easy, mind you. It was a lot of hard work, and took me many months before I would be able to understand the meaning even of simple text (sorry for the jargon). Several times, I would quit in desperation. But suddenly it started to make sense, and things would miraculously come to life before my mind's eyes -- without any television screen, just me and my mind. A new universe opened itself to me!

Through my friend, I met other people who had gone through the same experience. What struck me was, how friendly and helpful -- and civilized -- they all were. They didn't look down on me for only recently having joined their ranks; no, they helped me, provided me with books to read, and gradually I became versed in the ways of this new culture, and made a habit of reading books all the time. If only I could explain the experience, of real people from near and far, coming to life just from dead marks on paper, no electricity, no display screen involved, no nothing... just the miraculous working of the unaided human mind...

My family was worried about me; they witnessed with growing concern how my previous voracious appetite for digital video cartridges all but disappeared -- those are really, and I mean really, mediocre and devoid of imagination once you get to know books -- and I would withdraw with these weird, archaic-looking rectangular paper objects, spiritualistic stuff that sane people would not have anything to do with... I tried, with little luck, to explain to them what had happened to me.

Now, reading has become a way of life for me; I sometimes withdraw to remote places, with just books as company. On one occasion I climbed a tree to read a book while sitting up there; damned uncomfortable, but I just wanted to show to myself  that it could be done, as books have no power cord etc. Since I've found out that this is rather typical behaviour for newbie reading geeks. Or, I go out and meet my reading friends, and discuss at length all the things of common interest. There is no end to it really.

A funny thing about the reading subculture is that you can get a discussion going about the most far-out and irrelevant subjects. I remember a heated debate going on over many evenings on where the page numbers (the sequence numbers added to the pages in a book to more easily refer to them) should be put: bottom right, bottom middle or top right! One would imagine that better uses for one's time could be found... and then there are books containing, in addition to text, pictures. These are a sort of hybrid between "real" books and digital video's. I have been told that they may help to spread the reading art to a broader audience... others, however, especially the veteran reading subculture members, are disgusted by this, saying that it contaminates the true and noble art and is a concession to commercialism -- meaning, of course, Universal Digital Video Inc.

One thing I also learned, was that books, or texts,  are something you can produce yourself. You can put black marks on paper -- writing, they call it -- until you got the equivalent of a book made all by you. Then, when people read your book, you spring to life before their eyes, and you can tell them whatever you want -- without even appearing before a camera! Imagine.

Not that producing text is easy! I know, because I tried it. I still do it to keep a record of my experiences, for later (I have since learned that many people do this). But the things I have tried to write for others turned out rather awful. It takes skill and training, lots of training, to produce something worthwhile! That's what experienced writers have told me. They also kindly offered to help me develop my skills. Perhaps someday...

All this has been now several years past. You may have noticed, from the above, how helpful people in the reading subculture are towards newcomers; they really go to great lengths to help you, if you are prepared to learn. They have little patience with intellectual laziness. And you know something: I too, quite automatically and selfevidently adopted the rules of the subculture, and I too find myself instructing newcomers in the noble art and its cultural premises. And I am writing texts that are read by people, about things existing and non-existing, about people living and dead and imaginary, in the comforting knowledge that, by my writing, all this does exist, and all these people do live, in a very real sense. Figure that. It is indeed better to give than to receive!

As a final word, I have referred to the community of reading people -- literates, they call themselves -- as a subculture. Numerically this is true, but I find it unfortunate. They should be the mainstrain culture! Think, however, of the effort required to teach the whole population the art of reading! This would be obviously quite unthinkable. Imagine, a fully literate population! Bullshit. So, a subculture it will undoubtedly remain, and I have been fortunate and privileged to have been able to join it. You can too -- you only have to want it hard enough.

Welcome to my world!

Martin Vermeer

Any similarity to real circumstances in the real world is wholly and fully intentional.

Copyright © 1998, Martin Vermeer
Published in Issue 28 of Linux Gazette, May 1998