80,000 Books

By MacNeal, Edward | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

80,000 Books


MacNeal, Edward, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


IF YOU AND YOUR TEACHERS read a total of 80,000 -- yes, 80 thousand -- books this year, I'll sit on the roof for a day." This was the challenge principal George Young threw to the 418 students of Denbo Elementary School in Browns Mills, N.J., according to a front page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer of May 30, 1992. A picture beside the article shows Mr. Young sitting on the roof under an umbrella, feet up -- reading, of course.

How did they do it? How did 418 elementary students (and their teachers) read 80,000 books, an average of more than 190 books per student?

Let's use general semantics on this. Let's get extensional. What are we counting? You might be tempted to say, "books," but that's not quite the answer. I called the school's librarian, Gretel Dwyer, whose idea, incidentally, the challenge had been. She told me the library had 9,500 books and 17,000 magazines. So there never were 80,000 books. Actually, we're not counting things; we're counting actions. Right?

Okay, what actions? "Readings of books?" Let's say, "book-readings." How do we put that into a sentence? "The students," --uhh, "performed 80,000 book-readings." That's more accurate, isn't it, harder to misinterpret than "the students read 80,000 books." Unfortunately, it's also stilted, unnatural English. Not a very good start.

But wait, things get worse. All we've done so far is find a name, "book-readings," for actions. We still haven't examined the actions themselves. We need to be more extensional.

Think of yourself savoring the last sentence of a spy novel, biography, or whatever. Well, such actions are not what they counted at Denbo. Or, at most, only a small part of what they counted.

Next, think of yourself reading a bedtime story (say, a slim Golden Book) to your two children while your spouse listens nearby, ready to tuck them in. That makes four book-readings, Denbo-style. Do you have that? Now think of a class of nineteen third-graders taking turns reading a book aloud in class. That's twenty book-readings, counting the teacher.

So "book-readings," Denbo-style, doesn't exactly mean "curling up with a good book."

Now, I'm not trying to minimize Denbo's achievement. I'm just trying to understand what's meant by saying that they "read 80,000 books." I'm delighted -- as I presume you are -- to see the third TV generation reading books, even vicariously. And I hope a lot of them caught the habit.

Mathsemantically, however, two things worry me.

First, in ordinary spoken and written English, it seems we objectify actions automatically. By counting book-readings as books, we can say we read "80,000 books," even if our library has only 9,500 books. This parallels the way we personify actions, whereby in counting air passengers as "people" we end up saying that "450 million people flew last year," even though our entire population is just over half that. …

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