THINKER’S ALMANAC – JANUARY 12

Subject:  Imagination – “To Build a Fire”

Event:  Birthday of American author Jack London, 1876

It seems appropriate that the American author Jack London (1876-1916) was born in the middle of winter  — January 12, 1876, to be precise.  His best-known works take place in winter settings, specifically in the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.  His best-known novel The Call of the Wild (1903) recounts the adventures of a sled dog named Buck.  London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” one of the most anthologized stories ever written, is also set during a typically ice-cold Yukon winter.  

The only human character in the story is an unnamed man who is making a trek on foot to a mining camp, accompanied only by a husky dog.  Like thousands of others who migrated to the Yukon territory in hopes of striking it rich, the man in the story is a newcomer to the region, inexperienced in surviving in such a harsh landscape.  While the dog’s instincts make it aware of the dangers of the extreme cold, the man is not fully conscious of the potential peril of traveling alone in such extremely low temperatures. 

The man prepared for his trek by dressing in warm clothing and by packing some food and matches.  But as London explains early in the story, the man lacked one vital thing necessary for survival:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination.  He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.  Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty odd degrees of frost.  Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all.  It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.  Fifty degrees below zero stood for a bite of frost that hurt and that must be guarded against by the use of mittens, ear-flaps, warm moccasins, and thick socks.  Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head.

This paragraph foreshadows the man’s downfall.  He knows how to build a fire, but he fails to fully imagine what might happen if he builds his fire in the wrong location.  (Spoiler Alert) The man dies from the cold in the end, but it was a lack of imagination that was the true culprit, not the cold (1).

Imagination is the human species’ superpower:  the ability to create pictures of future possibilities and to explore ideas in the mind that are not currently present.  London’s story reminds us that failures of imagination aren’t just dangerous, they are sometimes fatal.

In a case of fact being worse than fiction, in October 2019, a 47-year old man decided to live-stream his climb up Japan’s Mount Fuji.   Even though he titled his video “Let’s Go to Snowy Mt. Fuji,” this man lacked the imagination to prepare for the climb and to anticipate what might go wrong.  Wearing only street clothes and no gloves, he struggled to climb as the trail became more and more slippery.  His tragic, but predictable, final words were, “Wait, I think, I am slipping!” After online viewers contacted authorities, searchers began looking for the man.  He had almost reached the 12,389-foot summit of Mt. Fuji; however, his fatal fall took him down to the 9,800-foot altitude (2).

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  How can a failure of imagination be fatal?

Challenge – Demise of the Witless:  The Darwin Awards are a catalog of real-life failures of imagination.  The failed attempt to summit Mt. Fuji won the 2020 award.  The Darwin Awards website entitled it “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”  Research another Darwin Award candidate or “winner,” and explain what happened and how it showed a failure of imagination.

Sources:

1-London, Jack.  “To Build a Fire.” 1908.

2-2020 Darwin Awards.  “Pinnacle Of Stupidity.”

January 12: Onomatopoeia Day

On this day in 1966, the TV series “Batman” premiered.  The success of the series can be traced to its appeals to a broad audience.  For kids, the show was a must-watch action-adventure, following the exploits of Batman and Robin, the dynamic duo from the DC comic books.  For adults, the show was campy comedy.  Airing twice a week, Batman was wildly successful.  The show was also notable as one of the first to cash-in on merchandising.  Fans could buy a Batman lunch pail, a Batman T-shirt, Batman trading cards, and even a Batman board game.  

The show included a nod to the classics.  In Bruce Wayne’s private study, on a desk next to his red Batphone, sat a bust of William Shakespeare.  The bust was a vital prop, for beneath the hinged head of the Bard was a hidden button.  When Wayne pushed the button, a sliding bookcase opened revealing two Batpoles, giving Batman and Robin immediate access to the Batcave.

Batman ran for three seasons, and in each of its 120 episodes, one plot element was inevitable:  Batman and Robin would confront one of their arch-villains, along with his or her henchman, and engage in a climactic fistfight.   This is where the rhetoric device called onomatopoeia was employed for effect.  To remind viewers that these were comic book characters, each punch was punctuated by words superimposed in bright colors on the screen.  The words “POW!,” “BAM!,” and “ZONK!” entered pop culture (1).

Onomatopoeia is the use of words to imitate or suggest sound. Imagery in language is largely about how words create vivid images, but we should not forget that we can also create imagery via sound effects like onomatopoeia.  For example, if we were to describe a car accident, we might say, “The two cars hit each other.”  This creates the image of two cars coming together; however, notice how the image becomes more vivid when we add a verb that has a sound effect:  “The two cars smashed into each other.”

The results of a psychological study conducted in 1974, shows just how important vivid verbs can be. Subjects in the study were shown a film of a traffic accident and then were asked questions about the accident.  Some of the subjects were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” Others were asked, “About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”  The subjects who were asked the second question (smashed), gave a higher estimated speed than the subjects who were asked the first question (hit).  

When the subjects were brought back to the lab a week later and shown the film of the accident again, they were asked if they had seen any broken glass.  In reality, there was no broken glass in the film, but several of the subjects reported seeing it. Of those who were asked a week earlier how fast the cars were going when they hit each other, 14 percent said they saw glass; of those who were asked how fast the cars were going when they smashed into each other, 32 percent said they saw glass (2).

This experiment not only shows the fallibility of human memory and perception, it also shows how the right word, especially the right verb, can create a powerful impression on a reader.  That impression can be in the form of a vivid image, but it can also be auditory, as in “smashed” or “crashed.”  The lesson here is to select your verbs carefully, for their sense, but also for their sound — for their visual effect, but also for their volume effect.

The following are some examples of volume verbs:

babble, beat, bellow, blare, blast, bubble, buzz, chatter, chug, cackle, click, crackle, crash, clang, cry, crush, drip, dribble, explode, fizzle, groan, growl, gurgle, hiss, hum, jingle, knock, moan, murmur, plink, plop, pop, purr, rasp, rattle, roar, rumble, rustle, scream screech shriek, shuffle, sing, sizzle, slurp, snap, splash, squawk, squeal, strike, sweep, swish, swoosh, thud, thunder, trumpet, wheeze, whisper, whistle

Today’s Challenge:  Turn Up the Volume

How can you use verbs to add sound effects to the imagery of sentences? Select three of the basic, boring sentences below, and breathe life into them by revising them, adding volume verbs and other vivid, detailed imagery.  As you revise, read them aloud, listening for each sentence’s soundtrack.

For example:

Basic Sentence:  The teacher raised his voice.

Revised Sentence:  The teacher’s voice thundered through the classroom as he barked at the students to sit down.

The car was old.

The children played.

The rain fell heavily.

The new day dawned.

The cat looked friendly.

The children were excited.

The student worked busily.

The restaurant was packed.

The fireworks were displayed.

The student woke to his alarm clock.

(Common Core Language 3 – Knowledge of Language)

Quotation of the Day:  Listen to the sound of your language. Read your words out loud.  Pay attention to their rhythm and cadence and flow. Consider the way they reverberate in your head, how they stir your heart. Ask how your reader would respond to ‘farewell’ as opposed to ‘goodbye,’ or to ‘mockingbird’ as opposed to ‘crow.’  -Stephen Wilbers in Mastering the Craft of Writing

1-Hanks, Henry.  Holy Golden Anniversary, ‘Batman’! Classic TV Show Turns 50.  Cnn.com. 12 Jan. 2016.

2-McLeod, Saul. Loftus and Palmer. Simplysychology.org. 2010.