The role of books as a shared language

Books fulfil the important role of being a shared language – a role that is also shared by movies and other things like music. For the sake of simplicity we’ll focus mostly on books in this post.

Every field creates its own terminology and its own language

You see it with doctors and with lawyers and with sales teams. They all develop their own special language that has special words with special meanings. It’s to the point that the conversations are often incomprehensible to outsiders.

Even within a field you have completely different dialects -

  1. A computer engineer and a civil engineer speak in vastly different languages when it comes to their work. 
  2. Even people in the same sub-field have pretty different vocabularies if they are in different companies (or different regions, or even different teams). 
  3. In addition you have words that might be shared but have very different meanings – which in some ways is worse due to the illusion of comprehension.

These are key fundamental differences. It’s not just that lawyers know what a subpoena is and doctors know what rheumatic fever is. They use vastly different languages because they live in vastly different worlds. Even their brains function in distinctly different ways.

The more specialized you get the more isolated you are

As we are getting more and more specialized we are getting more and more cutoff from each other.

By the time she’s finished school and college and 3-5 years of work she’s completely wedded to her profession’s language. We are well on our way to not being able to understand each other at all.

As we become better and better at grasping our field and talking in its language and becoming familiar with how to think for it we are also getting cut off from the rest of the world.

Unfortunately this separation in languages is necessary

We live in an age where specialization is necessary and inevitable – you have to drown in a field to master it. An effective doctor needs to know everything about medicine – all the terms, all the medicine, all the protocol of the operating room. She needs to be very fluent in the language and mindset of her work to be effective.

It’s the same with an architect. It’s imperative for him to be familiar with the language of architecture and be a master in it because if he isn’t his buildings might crash and kill people.

So – What do we do?

Books and Culture and Art step in as a Shared Language

Our entertainment, our precious few hours of doing things other than work, and our friendships and relationships with people outside of work are the only things preventing us from being totally incomprehensible to and totally uncomprehending of other people.

You might not have the inclination or the vocabulary to relate to a doctor’s work. However, you can relate to his interest in books and perhaps to his interest in a particular sport. Similarly, your neighbor might be overwhelmed by the words and language you use at work but can easily chat with you for hours about shared interests.

What is this shared language?

It’s a rather rough, constructed on the fly, collection of words and ways of looking at the world.

  1. 30%  of the time we’re at work talking in our work languages and lost in completely separate worlds.
  2. Another 30% of the time we’re sleeping.
  3. That leaves 40% of time in which we get to spend time with people who are actually different from us.

That 40% of time would be painfully awkward if it weren’t for the commonalities we do have – books, movies, music, TV, plays, and various other things which let people relate to each other.

Books use words that almost everyone knows

Every time there’s a post on eInk or ePaper technology on this Blog the spell check goes crazy. That’s what our work language is like for people outside of our work – a jumble of failed recognition.

On the other hand books, movies, etc. use language that almost everyone gets. That’s why you can get mega successes like Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling and James Patterson and Lord of the Rings and Iron Man. They are shared stories and they are sharable stories.

These shared stories and the shared language they use is the glue that’s keeping society intact. Without the things that create and sustain shared language we’d gradually stop understanding each other and things would fall apart. 

Role of Books in creating and sustaining a Shared Language

There are multiple facets -

  1. Use words that everyone gets and also teach words that everyone can share.  
  2. Tell Stories that everyone can relate with. 
  3. Share Stories that people can learn from – including understanding others.  
  4. Let people use their own meanings for words and at the same time learn shared things.
  5. Connect people to each other.

Books have the ability to take people with completely different backgrounds and lives and languages and make them feel the exact same thing. Remind them that underneath the flourishes and embellishments of our work languages is a very human language that everyone speaks and understands.

Books and Movies are better than TV and Games

For the most part TV and Games (talking about the latest incarnation, social games) are focused on getting to psychological commonalities and influencing human behavior. For TV it’s getting people to buy stuff advertisers want them to and for games it’s getting people entrapped in vicious, endless loops.

Movies and Books are different – there’s a reason why they take their money upfront. They focus on telling stories and reminding us of our shared stories and our shared heritage and culture. They aim to entertain after having taken our money and therefore they can focus on the aspects of building a shared language that TV and games never strive to because it serves advertisers better if we stay detached from, and uncomprehending of, each other.

Consider two examples

Let’s take The Road. At it’s core it’s the story of a father and a son – of a father not giving up so his son can live. It’s something every single human being in the world can share.

It’s a common language – family, love, hope, a future for our children.

Next, let’s look at The Bucket List. It’s many messages to many people. However, a few of the core themes are the fear of death, the importance of living life and doing things we want to, and friendship. It’s something everyone can relate to.

Death is even more undiscriminating than taxes – it takes the rich and the poor alike. It cares not that doctors have elaborate languages of their own or that scientists might converse in formulae instead of words. By dealing with Death so directly the movie takes us out of whatever safe, well laid out world we have constructed for ourselves and puts us in a world where we are forced to relate with everyone else. Everyone dies and that makes everyone relatable.

Shared Language vs Shared Confusion

In the end it’s a simple choice. To understand what we have in common with everyone else or to see only the differences.

Anyone trying to profit from us will always stress the latter.

If people saw a glimmer of themselves in everyone else then how could you ever get them to do anything to hurt other people. Or for that matter to hurt themselves.

That’s why books and movies are important – they bring us closer to other people and help us understand everyone else and that helps us better understand ourselves. The masterfully crafted, crucially important worlds of work we live in are not nearly as important as the real world.

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