Monday, December 10, 2012

Squiggles and Strokes

Every now and then, an idea, thought, or realization will sneak up behind me and whack me on the back of the head with a coal shovel to get my attention. As I was reading a magazine the other day it struck me that what I was staring at was in reality nothing but a long string of black squiggles and strokes on a piece of paper. The fact that I was able to recognize what each one of them represents—not just individually but when combined in little clusters we call “words”—may be a “Yeah? So?” for most people, but to me it is a true source of amazement. And if it weren’t marvel enough that I could instantly interpret these markings, that I am able to independently duplicate them and arrange them in myriads of ways is equally astounding.

Our ability to read and comprehend is yet another of the infinite and all but totally ignored wonders of human existence. I suppose this is natural, in that if we were to stop and contemplate each of the wonders that make us human, we would have no time to live our lives. But pausing every now and then to contemplate just how utterly awesome even one of the marvels involved in being alive and human is well worth the trouble, especially given the human tendency to take our abilities for granted until we are deprived of them.

To realize that the entire history of our race is in those squiggles and strokes—or, in the case of the blind, in the arrangement of small raised dots designed for interpretation by the fingers rather than the eyes—merely compounds the awe. It is truly sad that there are far too many people in the world today—and not just in underdeveloped countries, but in our own—who, for whatever reason, are unable to interpret either squiggles or dots. These people are not only at a great disadvantage in their individual lives, but collectively act as an anchor slowing human progress.

When I first arrived in Los Angeles many years ago I was dating a very nice young guy whose name time has taken from me. We were going to a restaurant and I couldn’t remember the address, so I pulled up to a pay phone and asked him to go check the address in the phone book. He came back and said he couldn’t find it. When I went to check it myself, there it was, plain as day. The fact, as I found out only much later, was that he was severely dyslexic and never learned to read, and was too embarrassed to admit it. I think it might have been one of the reasons we stopped seeing one another—not because I was ashamed of him, but because he was ashamed of himself. I think of him with a degree of sadness to this day.

Stop and think for a moment of just how amazing is our ability to read, and how wondrous it is that, realizing the limitations of the spoken word (information relayed by speech alone is inevitably diluted or subtly changed as it passes from person to person) our distant, distant ancestors began devising squiggles and strokes to convey information from generation to generation largely unchanged. (We won’t go into the vast problems inherent in translating information from one language another. The various versions of the Bible are a classic example.)

The blueprint for every human includes five senses which enable us to survive. Reading is not a sense but a learned behavior which relies upon sight and, for those deprived of sight, for touch, as in Braille. We can exist without being able to interpret squiggles and strokes and raised dots upon a page, but those who cannot do so are in effect regressed to our prehistoric past and tragically deprived of a universe of knowledge and joy.

So if you can read this, give thanks.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

Along those lines, it's been a discussion as of late that some schools want to stop teaching cursive writing. Why? Because most writing is done on a keyboard, which contains the printed versions of the letters and anything typed online comes out as printed, not handwritten.

And when somebody writes a note out, it's typically printed.

I like the idea of preserving cursive writing, though. It shouldn't become a lost art where one of us has to be called in to translate it for a young class.