I’ve written about old books as a sort of medicine, which, if taken in proper doses, could cure some of our modern diseases. And to be sure, I do believe that the calmer and wiser minds of the past can help us to steer our society in a better direction. But sometimes, I admit, I have little hope that the old books will have any effect on the modern world. Sometimes I read them purely for moral support.
Consider the communication problem peculiar to modern life: the use—by academics, politicians, administrators, educators, and writers of all kinds—of bloated prose, loaded with jargon, abundant in long, scientific-sounding, Latin-based words, seemingly very informed, but often difficult or impossible to understand. George Orwell, in a great old essay, “Politics and the English Language,” once invented this example:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Work on that for a minute or two. Is it easy to see what it means? Now compare it with the original from which Orwell adapted it:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
The biblical version, using shorter words and concrete examples, is easier to grasp than the one in the modern style—the style against which Orwell’s essay is a scathing attack. But has Orwell’s essay altered anything? “Politics and the English Language” was published in 1946, and the use of jargon-filled, pretentious prose has grown steadily since then.