“If you believe only in facts and forget stories,” Cassandra Clare writes in Lord of Shadows, “your brain will live but your heart will die.”
So here is a short story that illustrates, I think, how the brain keeps itself alive, serendipitously collecting its own facts.
Green Corner, Port-of-Spain, circa 1995. My daughter is buying some music-related item in a little music store on St Vincent Street just south of Globe Cinema. I am waiting across the street, one eye on my car, which is blocking someone’s driveway. My roving eye falls on a sign on the front of the building that reads “DRY RISER INLET”.
Flashback to Lille, France, 15 or so years earlier. Almost every morning for two years, I have to catch a bus to get to the university campus where I am pursuing post-graduate studies. The bus stop is around the corner from where I live in Loos, in front of an imposing skyscraper. And on the face of the building directly behind the bus shelter is a sign that reads “colonne sèche”.
I do not know what a dry riser inlet is or what purpose it serves. I cannot say I care. I cannot say if it is information that will one day prove useful. What I can say is that no one ever tried to teach me what its French equivalent is but I am 100% certain I know.
Which has taught me an important lesson about teaching.
So, in my current incarnation as a Wired868 opinion columnist, I occasionally attempt to teach, but I generally set out merely to present. I see the ravages of the sea change wrought by the social media tide and I have absolutely no desire to play the hero by seeking to stick one or more fingers in the dyke.
Unlike my friend and former classmate Noble Philip, I’m more than content merely to point out that there are holes. And leave others to use their fingers as they see fit. In the holes and/or at the polls.
However, it is a fact that nowadays, fingers are rarely used to turn the pages of paper dictionaries. What are the chances of the uncurious reader’s serendipitously discovering how the Oxford Dictionary of English defines ‘opinion’: A view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge (emphasis added).
In the conventional press, which puts like with like, opinion has its own space towards the middle of the newspaper. Here on Wired868, another insightful, well-researched Noble offering can find itself cheek by jowl with a commissioned Siewdath Persad Letter to the Editor.
A match report on a Pro League game or a feature story on Brian Lara or Darren Bravo may appear between two of Dr Fergus’ scholarly, history-based explorations.
On any given Sunday, Daly Bread may be flanked by some newly discovered aspect of the goings-on in David John-Williams’ TTFA. Or Mr Live Wire’s satire. Inter alia.
So it is easy for the unwary Wired868 reader to be completely confused about the difference between reportage and commentary. Trying to muddle through when confronted with that commingled fare, (s)he may well emerge muddle-headed.
To be clear, facts matter for both journalistic categories. Both reporters and opinion columnists are required to be completely responsible in their use of such facts as are available to them.
But, as I repeatedly stressed for the better part of a decade to my Fundamentals of Reporting students, whereas the reporter’s relationship to the facts is no different from the camera’s on television or the voice recorder’s on radio, columnists are under no obligation to ‘confine themselves to facts’.
By the way, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to whom the 14-word quotation containing those last four words is attributed, is no ne’er-do-well. He is Mark Twain, author of the philosophical treatise What is Man but so gifted a producer of bons mots that, were he alive today, he could easily fill Trevor Noah’s late-night slot on Comedy Central. Full-time or at short notice. The quote represents, I submit, not so much his attitude as an attitude.
Here, significantly, is another 19-word quotation attributed to him: “I think there is no sense in forming an opinion when there is no evidence to form it on.”
That discovery is owed not to research but to mesearch, decades of reading and observation with an open mind in pursuit of objective truth. Not for readers, real or imagined. For me. Facts are input, not throughput; they are ingested and digested, not regurgitated.
After all, as Frank Lloyd Wright says, the truth is always more important than the facts.
So a conclusion: when I write, I seek neither to uncover the truth nor to educate readers. I seek neither to make readers like me nor to make readers think like me. My goal is to make readers, like me, think.
And each to uncover the truth by taking up his/her own bed and walking…
…with his/her head engaged.