Reading in the Time of Covid

Recent consumer studies show that book purchases increased during the pandemic and that the Crime/Mystery genre registered the most purchases, more even than Romance.

On my side, since Covid-19 began clobbering the planet in early 2020, I haven’t been reading much mystery/detective fiction. I’ve been digging into non-fiction, mostly history and science. With a death pall on the land, grisly murders didn’t grab me. As for writing detective fiction, more on that in a future post.

Now that Covid-19 is a smaller scourge — in my locale, that is — I’m back to reading mystery/detective novels. Although whodunits revolve around murder, most aren’t hung up on death. The plots explore everything under the sun. They portray all aspects of humanity, from the positive to the negative. They are good and evil incarnate.

So, I’m back at it, checking out the “deadly” genre. I wonder how it will reflect the new zeitgeist. What’s going on out there? Uncertainty and innovation, to name a few things. And murder, of course. It would take more than a pandemic to rid the planet of murder, not to mention murder mysteries and romances. Read on, dear reader, whatever your favourite genres.

New Odysseys

The word novel is derived from the Latin novellus. As an adjective, novel means new, fresh, unique. Centuries after its birth, it also began to be used as a noun meaning story.Hey, AMP,’ you say, ‘enough of the etymology.’ Right. Onward.

Novels are adept at delivering ideas and emotions, as well as action, setting, and mood. If an author concentrates on one thing – for example, what people say – the story can fall flat. Talk by itself isn’t dramatic. Discussion devoid of action is a debate, not a story.

We all expect different things from novels. In my case, I want them to tell a complete story. Not just that some guy, let’s call him Odysseus, travelled for years, but how and where he travelled, and when and why, and who helped or hindered him – which are all included in Homer’s epic.

Beyond that, I want novels to tell a new story. ‘But, AMP,’ you say, ‘nothing is ever new under the sun.’ Fair enough. However, there will always be twists and shades: different settings, fresh perspectives, new odysseys.

Lexicography: What Can You Write with 50 Words? … Web 3.0

For many years, I worked in IT and wrote web-based software – mostly middleware – using various programming languages, among them Java and .NET. “OK, AMP, but what’s that got to do with writing fiction?” Patience, Grasshopper.

Most computer languages have no more than 100 keywords or ‘reserved’ words, and fifty or so main ones, such as if, then, for, etc. I used those fifty words over and over again. In essence, the world was reduced to fifty words.

How would that work with human language? Fifty words in English? Not a good thing. Are fifty computer keywords really enough? You’d think the paucity of computer lexicons would render the IT world flat and colourless. It could, and it did – from the 1950s to the 1980s. Think mainframes and keypunch cards.

Then came the UX (User eXperience) Revolution: user-friendly interfaces and web browsers. Next came smartphones and apps. Consider what’s been created with a fifty-word base: Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. Of course, you could say that IT has pauperized the world, reduced it to two-dimensional screens, to a virtual realm, to a hell of trolls. Yeah, there IS all that. But there is more. For instance, there’s blog space. You and I are ‘talking’ now. Well, I imagine you talking with me. That’s how I think of it.

Let’s do a very cursory comparison of a human language and a computer language. When learning a new human language, say English, if you master 1000 words you’re well on your way – not to being a poet, but to being functionally literate. Conversely, Shakespeare used over 21,000 words (and is credited with coining 1,800 of them). The Oxford English Dictionary contains about 200,000 entries. When learning to program in C++, you learn fifty or so keywords. Only fifty! It’s amazing what a CPU can do with fifty keywords.

Think of human culture as a whole. Human languages have spawned millions of books. Computer languages have spawned millions of URLs. I’m not suggesting we can compare human lexicons to computer lexicons. It’d be like comparing a book to a byte. So, let’s move on. At the moment, Web 3.0 is in its infancy. It will use the same fifty keywords. Can you expect them to accurately mirror the real world? No. But coders will keep trying.

PS: To all the code warriors and IT professionals out there: You’re right, you use thousands of variables and elements, not fifty. But I’m referring to reserved words. Look what you’ve done with them. Billions of humans are glued to their phones. Hehe. Which brings new meaning to the old maxim: “Words are powerful.”