The Big Read

Mind your language

Booker Prize-winning author John Berger died on Jan 2, aged 90.
Booker Prize-winning author John Berger died on Jan 2, aged 90.PHOTO: NYTIMES

In one of his last books before his death in January, author John Berger gave the antidote to these post-truth times

After a week in which new White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in the face of photographic proof and viewer statistics that proved otherwise, that his boss Donald Trump's inauguration had "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe", it is a relief to have recourse to the wisdom and integrity of the late John Berger on this.

Berger, who died aged 90 on Jan 2, published Confabulations, a slim book of 11 pithy essays, in October last year. Confabulate, from the Latin fabula or fable, means to chat.

The Booker Prize-winning author could never have known about what Mr Spicer said, but his idea about what ailed the West today was prescient.

He wrote: "The extent of the apparently inexplicable increases day by day. The politics of universal suffrage become meaningless because the discourse of national politicians no longer has any connection with what they do or can do."


    • Booker Prize-winning author John Berger died on Jan 2, aged 90.CONFABULATIONS

      By John Berger

      Penguin Books/ Paperback/ 146 pages/ $17.66 with GST/ Books Kinokuniya

The prodigious Berger's focus in this book, using the lens of language, was how everyone might master the human condition of being and becoming.

  • Five questions this book answers

  • 1 How might you be even more resilient than you are now?

    2 What are the most effective ways to hold another person's attention?

    3 Why are populism and protectionism gaining ground again globally?

    4 Why is there a growing disregard worldwide for the worth of quality and history?

    5 When should you pursue something and when should you let things be?

So, for example, he said that today's politicians and much of the media "are using the jargon and logic of management experts, with their cant about quantifying this and that, percentage points and so on". Such language, he pointed out, "does not speak of regret or hope".

  • In a nutshell



    He connects all the dots to living meaningfully with his sublime approach of light, love and liberty.


    His persistent rant about how capitalism has robbed most people of hope and chances is biased at best.

"And so," he added, "what is being publicly said and the way it is being said promotes a kind of civic and historic amnesia. Experience is being wiped out... we are being conditioned to live in an endless and uncertain present, reduced to being citizens in a state of forgetfulness."

  • Change of venue

  • Thanks to readers' strong support, tomorrow's Big Read Meet will be held at the larger Possibility Room, Level 5, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai there from 6.30pm to discuss Michael Lewis' new book, The Undoing Project.

    Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or try your luck at the door.

Also, he cautioned against the increasing use of words and phrases as labels or, worse, their being reduced to acronyms, rendering verbal cues "inert and empty", within a human vocabulary that had anyhow always been quite unable to capture the full majesty and terror of living.

All that suggests the book is heavy-going. It is anything but, thanks to his fun, creative approach of presenting arguments through stories from his life, seasoned with his legendary levity - the book's cover is his sketch of an egg and mushrooms with the caption, "See you later, omelette...".

What will likely linger most in your mind is his vivid, original imagery that will have you craving to learn more of everyone he speaks of, be he the saintly French Impressionist Camille Pissarro, the Iraqi poet Abdulkareem Kasid or the American singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

With Berger, days are "hot as a panting horse's breath"; meals with his enterprising mother were spent in "silent plenitude"; and Sven, his friend of 50 years, had a voice so "exceptionally reassuring", it was perfect for "announcing ceasefires".

With language being, as he argued, deadened by the day, how should one quell one's sense of haplessness?

Revel in the non-verbal, such as the physical gestures and facial cues the deaf use to weave "a song without sound". Clap or dance with abandon to sudden song. Have friends over more often for deep chats.

Swim, as Berger did regularly, in public pools, where everyone stripped down to their skimpies and had "no shoes, no marks of rank".

Berger, if you did not already guess, was a Marxist, but never joined any communist party.

Above all, he stressed, get up after every fall.

He thought the comic Charlie Chaplin the master of this.

He noted: "Each time he falls, he gets back on to his feet as a new man... The same multiplicity enables him to hold on to his next hope, although he is used to his hopes being repeatably shattered. He undergoes humiliation after humiliation with equanimity."

Few writers can spin a coherent, let alone mesmeric, tale out of subjects as disparate as troubadours performing in town squares, an Italian festival that toasts the eel and a mosaic basin of Christian images. But Berger does so almost effortlessly, thanks to his keen, sure eye for telling details.

He is gone, but for those resisting the post-truth era, his words live on.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 24, 2017, with the headline 'Mind your language'. Print Edition | Subscribe