Words. They are with us one moment… and then they are gone. Those words you read just seconds ago? Already pushed aside by the new words arriving now, barking for attention.
Is this weightlessness a concern? Should we hold our words, and those who speak them, more accountable?
Aldous Huxley would think so. Writer, poet, Hollywood screenwriter, philosopher. Perhaps best known for Brave New World, a novel published in 1932 depicting a future in which science creates genetically and behaviorally engineered humans. And 1954’s The Doors of Perception, in which Huxley describes his experiments with psychedelic drugs.
It is forward-looking writing that has survived to this day. Yet the prolific Huxley left us much, much more. A few years ago, a Rochester Institute of Technology graduate, Jon Budington, was poking through a used-book store in Vermont when he found Words and Their Meanings, a slim volume by Huxley, published in 1940. Budington contacted RIT Press and suggested the book was worthy of resurrection. The publishing house’s director, Bruce Austin, agreed.
After two years of laboring over the project, including securing rights to the text from the Huxley estate, RIT Press has re-published Words and Their Meanings, which will soon be available from rit.edu/press for $34.95.
Graphic design and the history of printing are a particular emphasis for RIT Press. And just holding Words and Their Meanings, we see that the book is words as a work of art. Or as Austin calls it, “a prestige piece.” Hold it in your hands. The abstract geometric image from the original Words and Their Meanings is reproduced on the bugra white dust jacket and as silkscreen on the vanilla vellum cloth hardcover. Inside, this new edition oozes gravitas thanks to the faithful reproduction of the original’s layout, design and vintage type faces: A mix of Janson, an early 20th century typeface revived from the Dutch Baroque period, and Futura, first introduced in 1927.
The pages of books from 1940 – this was the tail end of what was known as the “Golden Age” of book printing – were still being presented on hand-laid paper that displayed obvious texture, with non-uniform thickness and a ragged edge. The paper for this new, yet old, edition of Words and Their Meanings are up to modern standards. Yet this elegant Mohawk Superfine 80-pound paper, “mimics the tactile qualities of a hand-laid paper,” Austin says. “It’s noticeably different than a standard book. It has a substance and a weight to it.”
And there is much substance to be found in this slim volume of 41 pages. For a book priced at $34.95, that’s about 85 cents a page.
Austin believes the origin of Words and Their Meanings may be in a lecture delivered by Huxley. A lecture that may also have been a warning, as a world war was erupting. And today, still-relevant sentences leap from its pages. “I don’t think there’s ever been a book more timely,” Austin says. “The evidence comes when you open a newspaper every day.”
Austin cites Huxley’s words: “Words have power to mould men’s thinking, to canalize their feeling, to direct their willing and acting… Conduct and character are largely determined by the nature of the words we currently use to discuss ourselves and the world around us.”
Think of the words you are reading today, when you open your newspaper.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and her “alternative facts.”
President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani stating, “Truth is not truth.”
And Trump himself declaring, “Just remember, what you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
It’s already been said that such phrases could have been drawn from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Huxley issued similar warnings as well in Words and Their Meanings. Perhaps his observations were equally prescient as Orwell’s when he wrote of his era’s populist confusion: “The poor fools who, as we like to think are helplessly led astray by such Machiavellian demagogues as Hitler and Mussolini, are led astray because they get a lot of emotional fun out of being bamboozled in this way.”
Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is jeffspevak.com.