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Anachronisms in Reading

What I mean here is not a digital watch showing up in a Victorian novella, but more the language used in books we consider “modern,” that make us squirm. Words that are not a familiar part of polite or respectful conversation about others appearing in print have the ability and tendency to shock, discomfort and provoke a sense of guilt when they are repeated frequently.

As an example, I am currently listening to “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks. My cursory perusal of the book showed a print date of 1998, and I didn’t delve deeper. The subject matter seemed relevant and recent enough to expect only minimal pitfalls from new research and data. (I do mean this in a more relative sense than literal because I understand that drastic changes in research can take place in a short period of time, and that more than a decade could bring about a revolution of understanding.)

What disabused me of that expectation was the past two morning commutes where I began, then delved further into Part Four –  “The World of the Simple.”

While I was not surprised to encounter stories of those with mental handicaps in a book of this nature, what startled, disturbed and upset me was the terms used to describe these individuals. “Retarded.” “Idiot.” “Moron.” “Simpleton.” At best, these words are pejorative in the context of current day language usage, yet were used in conjunction with compassionate accounts of individuals who were uniquely talented, in some ways, and devastatingly impaired by standards of “normal” functioning. The dichotomy of these terms, the sometimes bewildered language used to account the doctor’s experience and his struggle to see past the “deficits” and reconcile that the testing available was by no account complete were and are confusing to more modern sensibilities. Because of the discomfort this part of the book has already inspired, I have dug a little deeper and noticed that the first copyright of the book was 1970, which goes a long way towards explaining the language, and the mindset around this group within society. But it doesn’t make it any more comfortable to listen to.

So what words, what language, prejudices or anachronistic attitudes have you come across in reading that make you squirm, or that make you feel uncomfortable for reading or guilty for enjoying what you’re reading in spite of context? Do you still keep reading? When you have expectations of encountering this kind of experience while reading, how do you prepare yourself?

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