Primo Levi, a chemist from Turin, became known for his humanistic memoirs of Auschwitz (1947) and more recently for his collections of lucid essays, The Periodic Table, The Monkey's Wrench, and Other People's Trades. When he was working on the latter, I met Primo Levi at a reception for him at Boston University.
At that time he explained that he was getting used to his word-processor, but that it had not mastered him. I now see that wry commentary reflected in his essay, "The Scribe", published in Other People's Trades.
...My ideas as to what takes place behind the screen are vague. At first contact, this ignorance of mine humiliated me profoundly; a young man rushed in to reassure me and he had guided me; and to start with he said to me: "You belong to the austere generation of humanists who still insist on wanting to understand the world around them. This demand has become absurd. Leave everything to habit and your discomfort will disappear. Consider do you think you know how the telephone and television work. and yet you use them everday. And with the exception of a few learned men how many know how their hearts and kidneys work?" [Compare Neil Postman -- mds]
Despite this admonition, the first collision with the apparatus was filled with anguish, the anguish of the unknown, which for many years I had no longer felt. The computer was delivered to me accompanied by a profusion of manuals. I tried to study them before touching the keys, and I felt lost. It seemed to me that although they were apparently written in Italian, there were in an unknown language; indeed in a mocking and misleading language in which well-known words like "open," "close," and "quit" are used in unusual ways....
Levi goes on to suggest "How much better it would have been to invent a decisively new terminology for these new things." But even as he gives this subtle commentary, he makes a comment to those aspiring to write:
Take note that one can attain the maximum of information by various paths, some quite subtle; one, fundamental, is the choice of synonyms, which almost never are equivalent to each other. There is always one which is "more right" that the others; but often it is necessary to look for it...
In this research, it seems to me important to keep alive the awareness of the original meaning of each word; if , for example, you remember that "to unleash" meant to free from leashes (bonds), you will be able to use the term in a more apporpriate manner and in less threadbare senses. Not all readers will notice the artifice, but they will at least preceive that the choce wasn't obvious, that you have worked for them, that you have not followed the line of least resistance."
Levi complained about the glossaries in computer manuals that proceed "in an opposite direction to that of common dictionaries; these [glossaries] define fimailiar terms by having recourse to abstruse terms, and the effect is devasting." (The Scribe)
Levi's own writing, praised by the likes of Saul Bellow, is the best example of this ability to home in on the words that mean the most, and to define the words of "other people's trades" so that all can understand.
-- Mark Schorr
This text was taken from an early draft of Mark's essay. See the full and up-to-date version (along with other interesting essays and poetry) on the ~bookmark~press web site