In Plain Words
Two years ago, I started working at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. When a friend of mine told me of a bookseller looking for an assistant, I imagined weekends spent caressing first-edition copies of “Ulysses” and “The Waste Land.” To my mind, books and literature were metonymically linked, and I couldn’t imagine that “books” would entail anything other than great works of literature.
In many Asian languages, the verb “to read” translates in two ways: one, signifying reading aloud; the other, reading in silence. In Chinese, for example, 读 means to read out loud, with the radical on the left-hand side, 讠, signaling an association with speech. On the other hand, 看 means to read in silence. It also means to look at, and the rectangle with two lines across it,目, means “eyes.” The distinction is somewhat fluid: 读 can often be used interchangeably to mean reading out loud and in silence, though 看 can never be used to indicate reading aloud. I don’t speak, read, or write Chinese very well; I never have. It was only in my mid-teens that I learned the difference between 读 and 看, when I had previously always used 读 (reading aloud) to signify “read.” I suppose my relatives must have thought I spent a lot of time reciting poetry and prose to myself.
It’s an understandable oversight: When we’re taught to read, we begin by reading aloud—logistically, I’m not sure how you could teach a child to read in silence—and our first attempts at transliterating lines and curves into words always begins with oral utterances. But our use of the same word—“read”—to signify both reading aloud and in silence perhaps obfuscates our awareness of the intrinsic difference between two very different activities.
My favorite way to break up with people is by letter.
No, that’s not true. Rather, the only way I know how to break up with people is by letter. There’s simply something about that highly charged, traumatically emotional, in-person exchange that I can’t handle: the desperate reading of facial expressions, the vulnerable body language, the nervous shaking, the words—confused and incoherent—forced upwards through a constricted throat, threatening asphyxiation.