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80,000 books.

IF YOU AND YOUR TEACHERS read a total of 80,000 -- yes, 80 thousand -- books this year, I'll sit on the roof for a day." This was the challenge principal George Young threw to the 418 students of Denbo Elementary School in Browns Mills, N.J., according to a front page story in the Philadelphia Inquirer of May 30, 1992. A picture beside the article shows Mr. Young sitting on the roof under an umbrella, feet up -- reading, of course.

How did they do it? How did 418 elementary students (and their teachers) read 80,000 books, an average of more than 190 books per student?

Let's use general semantics on this. Let's get extensional. What are we counting? You might be tempted to say, "books," but that's not quite the answer. I called the school's librarian, Gretel Dwyer, whose idea, incidentally, the challenge had been. She told me the library had 9,500 books and 17,000 magazines. So there never were 80,000 books. Actually, we're not counting things; we're counting actions. Right?

Okay, what actions? "Readings of books?" Let's say, "book-readings." How do we put that into a sentence? "The students," --uhh, "performed 80,000 book-readings." That's more accurate, isn't it, harder to misinterpret than "the students read 80,000 books." Unfortunately, it's also stilted, unnatural English. Not a very good start.

But wait, things get worse. All we've done so far is find a name, "book-readings," for actions. We still haven't examined the actions themselves. We need to be more extensional.

Think of yourself savoring the last sentence of a spy novel, biography, or whatever. Well, such actions are not what they counted at Denbo. Or, at most, only a small part of what they counted.

Next, think of yourself reading a bedtime story (say, a slim Golden Book) to your two children while your spouse listens nearby, ready to tuck them in. That makes four book-readings, Denbo-style. Do you have that? Now think of a class of nineteen third-graders taking turns reading a book aloud in class. That's twenty book-readings, counting the teacher.

So "book-readings," Denbo-style, doesn't exactly mean "curling up with a good book."

Now, I'm not trying to minimize Denbo's achievement. I'm just trying to understand what's meant by saying that they "read 80,000 books." I'm delighted -- as I presume you are -- to see the third TV generation reading books, even vicariously. And I hope a lot of them caught the habit.

Mathsemantically, however, two things worry me.

First, in ordinary spoken and written English, it seems we objectify actions automatically. By counting book-readings as books, we can say we read "80,000 books," even if our library has only 9,500 books. This parallels the way we personify actions, whereby in counting air passengers as "people" we end up saying that "450 million people flew last year," even though our entire population is just over half that.(1) Such distortions worry me, especially because they go mostly unnoticed.

Second, the goal-directed, record-setting, aspect of the Denbo success worries me. On the upside we've enticed some elementary school children (and teachers?) into reading. Great. That's great! I mean it. I approve. On the downside we've demonstrated how to -- what shall I say? "Cheat" seems so harsh, and so does "deceive ourselves." Let me explain, and then you try to find the right word.

If the game is to reach the goal of reading 80,000 books, a little experience demonstrates that our count goes up faster when we use short books and let many "readers" listen. I don't think the lesson here goes unnoticed, at least not by us alert kids. We might even count short books on tape played to napping kids. We learn to fulfill quotas with minimum effort by sapping the meaning of words, in this case, "book" and "read." And we learn that we can be applauded for it. That worries me.

Now maybe you can see why I didn't know what to call this lesson. Some clever students might learn to use it to distort perceptions without actually lying.(2) A few might be unscrupulous and also attain important business or governmental posts, and that worries me. Most students probably only learn -- from the congratulations and applause of parents, schoolmates, teachers, and the press -- that the world at large accepts such distortions as perfectly natural. These students worry me also, because they learn not to see the distortion.

Putting my two worries together yields this: I'm worried by a process that distorts events, that blinds us to the distortion, that teaches us how to take advantage of numbers by debasing language, and that nevertheless earns us applause. I'm concerned where this might lead. You never know.

Well, there we are.

Now, I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I don't want you to think the Mathsemantic Monitor a killjoy. Especially not about great kids learning to read. I wonder whatever could have made me so critical. Probably something I ate.

Ah well, the noon mail should improve my outlook. It's time for me to get back to aviation work, anyway. Here's the latest Aviation Daily. Let's see, what's today's lead story?

"About 143 million aircraft, or about 390,000 a day were safely handled by FAA in U.S. airspace during fiscal 1992. Agency recorded about one operational error for every 200,000 aircraft handled."

Uh oh! The entire U.S. scheduled air-carrier passenger fleet is only about 5 thousand aircraft.


1. For more on this distortion, see my "How many passengers are you?" Et cetera, Spring 1987.

2. For other examples of numerical distortion, see "Mind your mind: or some ways of distorting facts while telling the truth," by Oleg G. Pocheptsov, Et cetera, Winter, 1992-93.
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Title Annotation:The Mathsemantic Monitor; language manipulation
Author:MacNeal, Edward
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Jun 22, 1993
Previous Article:Success, ghosts, and things.
Next Article:A general semantics glossary.

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