Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: If You Can Read This, Thank God

It is amazing how often we miss the point of something that is said because we look at a situation through our own private set of circumstances. A secretary arrived at the office at 9:15 one morning. The boss said to her: "You should have been here at 9:00!" "Why", she asked, "what happened?" Point missed.

This reminded me of another story. A maid was called into account for her careless work. Pointing to a table covered with dust, the lady of the house said: "Why, I can write my name in the dust on that table". To which the illiterate maid quickly replied: "That's wonderful!" Point missed, and point made.

It is difficult for those who are literate to realize the extreme handicap of illiteracy. Back during the Depression, when I was in elementary school, we sometimes traveled 18 miles on a two-mule wagon to Evergreen, the county seat of Conecuh County, Alabama.. The parking place for wagons was under a bridge and beside the railroad tracks. I remember once waiting at the wagon with an illiterate grown man for the rest of our party to gather for the trip home. I was casually reading aloud the lettering on the boxcars of a slow moving train, when this man said to me: "Boy, I would give one of those boxcars filled with money if I could read what you are reading and write my name". Although I wondered why he never learned to read and write, the sadness of his statement on that occasion has haunted me all my life. I wish I had offered to teach him. I wish that he had wanted to learn.

Historically, those who could read and write (the scribes) have been held in high esteem. The ability to read and write was associated in some ways with magic. In his book, Man's Unconquerable Mind, Gilbert Highet reminds us that after the destruction of the western empire, and after language had broken up into numerous dialects, "literacy was so rare as to be close to magic. In a time when many a priest could scarcely read and many a general or monarch could hardly write his own barbarous name", the scribe was an important part of the wounded social order. The English word "glamour" is derived from the word "grammar". To know grammar was to have glamour, a sort of magical charm.

Lincoln was once asked what he considered the most important invention in the history of humankind. Without hesitation he replied "the written word".

The human memory is a strange and often undependable phenomenon. It often distorts reality. Ask more than one person to describe a particular event and you will hear as many different accounts as you have people. Our memory is selective and to our consternation as we grow older, often elusive. We find ourselves forgetting what we wanted to remember and remembering what we wanted to forget. Admittedly, written accounts are not always perfect because they are filtered through the predispositions and prejudices of the scribe. Sometimes history is revised to fit a particular philosophy. In war, for instance, the victor always writes the history, and the victor is most always the hero. All of this not withstanding, a contemporaneous written account is more dependable than the human memory, and more lasting.

No mechanical invention, no matter how ingenious, can equal the process by which we bridge time and space with the written word. We cannot retain much history in our heads. While human intelligence allows us to grasp some idea of the succession of generations, without writing, the story of the past soon degenerates into myth and fable. The age of the computer will help some, but someone must still write the story to put it in the computer. When our illiterate forebears of 6000 years ago (and beyond) passed from the scene, the story of their struggles died within a scant few generations.

Loren Eisely once wrote: "Only the poet who writes speaks his message across the millennia to other ears. Only in writing can the cry from the great cross on Golgotha still be heard in the minds of men".

If you can read and write, it is absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, those who do not read and write are as sadly crippled as those who cannot.