Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Death of the Public Library

An open letter to
Jane Pyper, City Librarian, City of Toronto
Councillor Paul Ainslie, Chair, Library Board
23 August 2013

Dear Ms. Pyper and Councillor Ainslie:
For almost 50 years now, I have frequented libraries: from the small town library in the Okanogan where I came of age, to various libraries across Canada, which I visited while a travelling musician, to Toronto’s libraries which I have frequented for the past 30 years. I have loved them all because they fanatically maintained what T.S. referred to as a “lucid stillness”. I was never inundated with noise while visiting one; but I see now that I took that silence for granted—wasn’t that what I was meant to do? Weren’t libraries designed to be quiet zones away from the hurly burly of life so that citizens (not “customers” by the way) could think, reflect and learn without distraction?

No longer. These days, I enter the Toronto Public Library (TPL) system with dread, like someone who has been physically abused and is not sure from where or when the next blow will fall. That lucid stillness—the reflective quiet—is gone, replaced by a mind-ravaging disease, adversely affecting civilized and intelligent, human behaviour; a disorder infecting all public spaces, deadening all society: Cellphonitis. And those who manage the library system, guarding that lucid stillness, are helpless against it.

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(An Excerpt From Exhilarating Prose: A Writer’s Manual
A work in progress by Barry Healey & Cordelia Strube)


What is it?
Dead language is language that is… well, dead. Like the Monty Python parrot, it is deceased, expired, no longer of the living. It litters the cultural landscape. It’s leaden, repetitive and un-arousing—prose unable to transport the reader anywhere.
You cannot write sparkling prose with dead language. The writer needs to metaphorically jab the reader in the brain with a sharp stick; to replace mirthless, incoherent, disingenuous words and phrases with lucid and startling ones. The writing must be sparse, sharp and vibrant to stimulate the reader’s imagination. Each word, phrase or sentence must be tested before being deployed—effective prose is uncluttered, and contains no unnecessary, misleading, bland or deceptive words which might smother imagery or meaning.
Dead language is made up of ‘The Speaks’—ad-speak, media-speak, techno-speak, medical-speak, valley-girl-speak, art-speak, sports-speak, corporate-speak, government-speak, and a hundred other speaks—clusters of clichéd words and phrases, replicating the same oral and written syntax, effectively blocking the communication of forceful and original ideas.

Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.

~George Orwell

Ad-speak—like “Doublethink” in Orwell’s 1984—is now wholly incomprehensible (e.g. our local jazz radio station advertises “This commercial free Sunday is brought to you by…”). Everywhere in the media you find, “The more you buy, the more you save!” One imagines chimps bouncing on chairs in ad agency cubicles, pounding their keyboards and chanting, “the more you save, the more you buy, the more you buy, the more you save”. Continue reading