I have always been a word person. Even though science occasionally fascinates me, and I appreciate the logic of mathematics, I have always thought the language arts are quite superior. After all, what could be more lofty and admirable than being able to compose a perfect Petrarchan sonnet? What could be more glorious than our innate ability to communicate with words? And what could be better than recording feelings and events in the code of language, for posterity to enjoy? A great novel or play is the epitome of human achievement — or so I thought.
This year, I am teaching British literature. That means going back to the Anglo-Saxon days of Beowulf, and the Middle Ages when Canterbury Tales was written. I have been awed by the ability, even so many years ago, of human beings to create wonderful stories in such vivid language that breathes for us centuries later!
Then we came to the Renaissance. I was prepared, again, to be impressed with my own field — language. And I still am. But in giving the historical background of that era, there was something that turned my thinking upside down. And it wasn’t a piece of literature.
It was technology.
The printing press, invented in the 1400s, changed life way more than any poem or play of Shakespeare ever did. Before the printing press, most people were basically illiterate. Books were reproduced painstakingly by scribes, and mostly written in Latin. Who could afford a book which took a year to create? Who could understand a book not written in one’s own language?
Books, before the Renaissance, were the province of either the rich, or the clergy. Common people relied on the landowners, or the priests, to explain things to them.
What a revolution when books became accessible to everyday people! They didn’t need a priest to educate them; they had the same access to information as the rich did. Books such as the Bible were translated into many languages. The authorities were questioned; every human being could think for himself or herself and make decisions and communicate with God without an intermediary.
And it was science that changed all that, not writers. Writers rely on the skill and ability of scientists to get their words across.
And how much more so is that true today. My very typing on this computer, and my communicating with you, is thanks to scientists who had the insight and ability to create word processing, computers, the Internet. Think of all the access to information we have now, compared to the Renaissance. I would like to credit English teachers with these accomplishments, but it was the logical thinking of scientists and engineers, their ability to calculate and create, that made all this possible.
And so, although we think of novels and poetry as the supreme act of creativity and imagination, it is scientists who are the true creators. If those logical thinkers hadn’t imagined the possibility of car engines and computers, they would not exist.
So the realm of the imagination does not belong to writers alone. In fact, we writers rely on science and technology. Without it, we would be recording our thoughts with quill pens on parchment for the rich.
And so, as my daughter seeks to pursue her PhD in biology instead of writing the great American novel, I give her more credit than ever before. Curing a disease or contributing to our knowledge of genetics, as she is determined to do, is worth at least as much as writing an insightful novel full of clever words, or providing relief from our everyday cares on the stage. So here’s to Galileo and Shakespeare, Copernicus and Chaucer — and to the creative genius in every field.