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Rediscovering the values and beauty of writing in our rash times of “Likes” and invective

“I believe in the mystery of words and that words can become life, destiny, just as they become beauty.” Leonardo Sciascia knew how to use words well, with measured rigour and strong expressive power, and left a valuable legacy behind him – novels and essays that, still today, tell of conflict and pain, timid hopes and sensible plans for a better future.

Here’s the key word: future. In fact, Sciascia wrote a collection of articles (published by Bompiani in 1989 and later on by Adelphi in 2017) called “To future memory”, to which title he promptly added “If memory had a future” – an ironic and nostalgic subtitle, expressing awareness of our limited human condition.

The suggestive beauty of words, the suitably restrained power of writing. And even if it’s not entirely true that “the world, in the end, exists in order to end up as a book”, as Stéphane Mallarmé believed, we can be certain that one of the fundamental characteristics we, human-animals, possess, is that of processing life through storytelling. Stories add substance to our existence, poetry some charm; we gain a sense of perspective that prevents our life from depleting itself into experience, from vanishing into a fleeting moment.

In his recent book, La nuova manomissione delle parole (New ways of tampering with words) Gianrico Carofiglio recalls the teachings of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, and tells us that “the cognitive revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to gain the upper hand over other animal species consists precisely in the ability to devise and tell stories, in the aptitude of building metaphors. And stories – spanning from the legends of ancient religions to the myths of mass society – hold together our large human communities and enable undertakings that, without the ability to narrate the past and imagine the future, would otherwise be impossible.”

Through writing and narration, humans defy death and conquer time. Therefore, stories and writing are essential in order to tell and interpret a reality in flux while leaving some traces that go beyond the limits of our self-awareness behind us – back to those two words so dear to Sciascia (and to all writers): memory and future.

Thus, learning that high school students started a petition on change.org to ask for the abolition of written examinations in the 2022 finals, and that it collected 30,000 signatures, comes as a painful surprise. True, written examinations are more difficult while oral examinations entail other aptitudes: the ability to improvise, the confidence to present, the capability to perfunctorily discuss concepts without delving into them, personal likings. Yet, as per the Latin proverb, verba volant, scripta manent (“spoken words fly away, written words remain”), and, indeed, a written piece is evidence that a concept, an account or a story, have been thoroughly understood. Writing is the ability to synthesise information, to provide clear, accurate descriptions.

”When writing is scary”, remarked Paolo Di Paolo on la Repubblica (8 November). It’s scary for young students, before an exam, but it’s also scary for adults, when they find themselves, bewildered, in front of a blank page to be filled with intelligible thoughts and opinions or a written page whose sense cannot be fathomed. And impoverished language means impoverished human culture – it leads to individual deterioration, social wounds, exclusion.

Data from INVALSI, the Italian National institute for the evaluation of the education system, is worrying, as it confirms the growing ignorance of our children: 44% of high school students doesn’t reach the minimum average in Italian, and 51% in maths. And figures are even worse in the South of Italy and in families in financial hardship.

In general, in terms of education, the big picture appears extremely serious. Indeed, Italy comes in last in Europe in terms of university graduates (just 19.6% in the 25 to 64 age range, compared to the EU average of 33.2%) and has a very high rate of people with a very low education level: 13 million people with just a lower secondary school qualification. A bleak figure, not merely in relation to the prospects of economic growth, but also and above all for a more widespread socially balanced development.

Will making exams easier improve the situation? Of course not.

Looking beyond the fact that the whole Italian education system is in need of major changes, and the amount of investment these would entail (the Draghi government’s PNRR, the Italian recovery and resilience plan, and the measures announced by the Minister of Education Patrizio Bianchi are nonetheless a step, albeit a small one, in this direction), the country needs to take on a social and cultural battle: make some efforts in promoting reading and writing, for a start, and in teaching how society, economy, employment, businesses, communities can be better and further narrated.

Rem tene, verba sequentur (“Grasp the subject, the words will follow”), goes another Latin proverb, and, also, Nomina sunt consequentia rerum (“words are consequences of facts”). A deep bond connects things and words, facts and nouns, and writing strengthens it.

Writing allows people to collect their thoughts, to thoroughly express feelings and desires, to substantiate choices, to translate a complex reality into a better organised, more manageable one, which others can then share and understand.

True, we live in a society where images and immediacy are prevalent, dominated by “show and tell” and a coveted “instant fulfilment” (“Instant economics – The real-time revolution” was the title of an investigation on financial frenzy and rash consumerism published in The Economist issue of 23 October). The language of social media, where communication is done through “Likes”, has compressed and polarised judgement into fanatical love or hate, and actual writing is reduced to express bare invective or amazed wonder. The power of communication has expanded, yet restraint is nowhere to be seen, and the way words are manipulated is crippling.

This is also why we need to rediscover the profound value and meaning of words and regain the distance that good writing demands in order to “talk” about itself, define the world, narrate experiences and feelings, with perspective and self-awareness. We need to overcome this fear of writing, and reacquire a taste for clarity and, thinking of Sciascia, for beauty.

“I believe in the mystery of words and that words can become life, destiny, just as they become beauty.” Leonardo Sciascia knew how to use words well, with measured rigour and strong expressive power, and left a valuable legacy behind him – novels and essays that, still today, tell of conflict and pain, timid hopes and sensible plans for a better future.

Here’s the key word: future. In fact, Sciascia wrote a collection of articles (published by Bompiani in 1989 and later on by Adelphi in 2017) called “To future memory”, to which title he promptly added “If memory had a future” – an ironic and nostalgic subtitle, expressing awareness of our limited human condition.

The suggestive beauty of words, the suitably restrained power of writing. And even if it’s not entirely true that “the world, in the end, exists in order to end up as a book”, as Stéphane Mallarmé believed, we can be certain that one of the fundamental characteristics we, human-animals, possess, is that of processing life through storytelling. Stories add substance to our existence, poetry some charm; we gain a sense of perspective that prevents our life from depleting itself into experience, from vanishing into a fleeting moment.

In his recent book, La nuova manomissione delle parole (New ways of tampering with words) Gianrico Carofiglio recalls the teachings of Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, and tells us that “the cognitive revolution that allowed Homo sapiens to gain the upper hand over other animal species consists precisely in the ability to devise and tell stories, in the aptitude of building metaphors. And stories – spanning from the legends of ancient religions to the myths of mass society – hold together our large human communities and enable undertakings that, without the ability to narrate the past and imagine the future, would otherwise be impossible.”

Through writing and narration, humans defy death and conquer time. Therefore, stories and writing are essential in order to tell and interpret a reality in flux while leaving some traces that go beyond the limits of our self-awareness behind us – back to those two words so dear to Sciascia (and to all writers): memory and future.

Thus, learning that high school students started a petition on change.org to ask for the abolition of written examinations in the 2022 finals, and that it collected 30,000 signatures, comes as a painful surprise. True, written examinations are more difficult while oral examinations entail other aptitudes: the ability to improvise, the confidence to present, the capability to perfunctorily discuss concepts without delving into them, personal likings. Yet, as per the Latin proverb, verba volant, scripta manent (“spoken words fly away, written words remain”), and, indeed, a written piece is evidence that a concept, an account or a story, have been thoroughly understood. Writing is the ability to synthesise information, to provide clear, accurate descriptions.

”When writing is scary”, remarked Paolo Di Paolo on la Repubblica (8 November). It’s scary for young students, before an exam, but it’s also scary for adults, when they find themselves, bewildered, in front of a blank page to be filled with intelligible thoughts and opinions or a written page whose sense cannot be fathomed. And impoverished language means impoverished human culture – it leads to individual deterioration, social wounds, exclusion.

Data from INVALSI, the Italian National institute for the evaluation of the education system, is worrying, as it confirms the growing ignorance of our children: 44% of high school students doesn’t reach the minimum average in Italian, and 51% in maths. And figures are even worse in the South of Italy and in families in financial hardship.

In general, in terms of education, the big picture appears extremely serious. Indeed, Italy comes in last in Europe in terms of university graduates (just 19.6% in the 25 to 64 age range, compared to the EU average of 33.2%) and has a very high rate of people with a very low education level: 13 million people with just a lower secondary school qualification. A bleak figure, not merely in relation to the prospects of economic growth, but also and above all for a more widespread socially balanced development.

Will making exams easier improve the situation? Of course not.

Looking beyond the fact that the whole Italian education system is in need of major changes, and the amount of investment these would entail (the Draghi government’s PNRR, the Italian recovery and resilience plan, and the measures announced by the Minister of Education Patrizio Bianchi are nonetheless a step, albeit a small one, in this direction), the country needs to take on a social and cultural battle: make some efforts in promoting reading and writing, for a start, and in teaching how society, economy, employment, businesses, communities can be better and further narrated.

Rem tene, verba sequentur (“Grasp the subject, the words will follow”), goes another Latin proverb, and, also, Nomina sunt consequentia rerum (“words are consequences of facts”). A deep bond connects things and words, facts and nouns, and writing strengthens it.

Writing allows people to collect their thoughts, to thoroughly express feelings and desires, to substantiate choices, to translate a complex reality into a better organised, more manageable one, which others can then share and understand.

True, we live in a society where images and immediacy are prevalent, dominated by “show and tell” and a coveted “instant fulfilment” (“Instant economics – The real-time revolution” was the title of an investigation on financial frenzy and rash consumerism published in The Economist issue of 23 October). The language of social media, where communication is done through “Likes”, has compressed and polarised judgement into fanatical love or hate, and actual writing is reduced to express bare invective or amazed wonder. The power of communication has expanded, yet restraint is nowhere to be seen, and the way words are manipulated is crippling.

This is also why we need to rediscover the profound value and meaning of words and regain the distance that good writing demands in order to “talk” about itself, define the world, narrate experiences and feelings, with perspective and self-awareness. We need to overcome this fear of writing, and reacquire a taste for clarity and, thinking of Sciascia, for beauty.