This One Time, 38

This one time I was rereading a book I know I had read maybe thirty times, and I couldn’t remember what was going to happen next.

I know I’m not the world’s best reader. I couldn’t really even be called literate until the seventh grade, and that was because my grandfather put me in this summer program after the sixth grade. He came to live with us after my dad went to jail, and since he wrote stuff for a living, he wasn’t willing to put up with anyone living in the house with him who was just scraping by. We had a big fight about it, and my mom weighed in, and then there was that scare with the abandoned building on the next block over, and then I figured I owed him something for stepping in to keep me out of juvie.

I remember the meat of the argument after all these years. He said the big difference between people who are in and out of jail their whole lives and people who aren’t is whether those people can read and write well enough to save themselves. I shot back with the counter that there was no way in hell just being able to read and write would keep you from being a criminal. I said maybe it just made you a better class of criminal. Then, because my mom was there, he leaned over and whispered, “Tell me, you dumb shit: what’s wrong with that? Also, why not learn a little bit of how not to get caught? People write that shit down. Find it and read it.”

At least that’s how I remember it happening this time. I never wrote it down until now, to fix it in my head.

Grandpa told me that’s how science and technology are taking off like they are right now, and why it never had until public schools and mandatory education came along. As long as only maybe five people in a hundred could read or write, then everyone who couldn’t read had to count on those people to not be lying for their own ends when it was time to go through what people had already found out and written down.

“Words don’t change once you write’ em down,” he said. “That’s what will save us all.”

I believed him at the time, but I don’t believe that so much now.

I don’t read or write any language except English, but I know English. And I’ve picked up what Beowulf looked like when it was first written down, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and a King James Bible, and a copy of the US Constitution, and some H.G. Wells, and some Vonnegut, and the comments section of any given YouTube page, and I’m convinced that the more stuff gets written down, the faster English itself changes, making all the stuff that’s gone before less and less comprehensible. Like science and technology, it just changes faster and faster.

And this book in front of me, this book my grandfather wrote, I read it every six months. Once on his birthday, and once on the anniversary of his death. And every damned time I read it, it’s different. It’s different to the point that the world itself is different when I get to the end.

After the fifth or sixth time I read it, it freaked me out so badly I started writing down everything that was important to me so I’d remember how things actually happened.

Not that that helped any.

You know already that when you read something, you can be confused about the meaning of the words. Some words have a bunch of different meanings. New meanings to old words crop up all the time, and old meanings fall out of use, and that doesn’t even take into consideration sarcasm, irony, and people deliberately trying to keep you confused about what they mean. Then you have to take into account a book has a hundred thousand words, or maybe twice or tree times that, and when you have to depend on context to tell you what meaning a word has, or a sentence, or a paragraph, or a chapter, you can get a cascade that changes everything, start to finish. A cascade that can sweep you along with it, and change everything downstream.

Especially if what you’re reading tells you important truths about the history of things, about your family. About yourself.

Twice a year I pick up this book. If the past few months have been horrible, I can count on this book to have a good chance of rearranging things so that things will have been better. If the past few months have been beautiful, then I pick up the book with fear and trembling. Sometimes it doesn’t change things. Sometimes it just puts things in perspective or refines them. But you never know.

Context is everything.


February 7, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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