Executive Director's Report

Sigma Tau Delta Lessons for Wordsmiths

William C. Johnson
Executive Director
Northern Illinois University

I have to start with a confession. Not one of those delightful artificial ones that grace the pages of some of our literary favorites (Gulliver's Travels, Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn, Prufrock's great "Love Song," to name a few), but an honest-to-goodness admission. It's this:
During this minute in time when almost everyone I know is talking of Kindles, iPads, and Nooks, I am an out-of-the-closet reader of books. Not online, not downloaded, not electronically generated or digitally read books, but substantive, actually-printed-on-paper books. The kind you hold in your hands. The kind that emit a dusty acidity from the ink and beckon, entice, even seduce you to indulge in the sensuality of the tactile experience.

There's something exhilarating about a "real" book's corporality, and I'd wager that almost every Sigma Tau Delta member can think of books that somehow just wouldn't seem right to read on an electronic device.

Consider, for example, your childhood favorites. Can you imagine, in your early days, when you were falling in love with reading, that you'd have had the same experience if Mom or Dad read you Good Night Moon from their iPad? Or that, a few years later, Charlotte's Web would have tantalized you, drawn you in, the way just holding that book did? Recall the excitement, the inexplicable head-swelling and soul-expanding joy you felt when you owned your very own copy and could instantly find the page on which you were gripped by "I don't see why [Father] needs an ax," continued Fern, who was only eight. "Well," said her mother, "one of the pigs is a runt. It's very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it." "Do away with it?" shrieked Fern."You mean kill it?"

It's early-read texts like that one, experienced firsthand (pun intended), that hooked me into my self-indulgent lifelong reading of real books. Such reading was accompanied by the blessing and the bane of everyone in our field—book hoarding. Where's the fun in being an English major when it's not accompanied by owning books? Who among us has not stretched out our collections across bookshelves or built mountainous stacks that, like Hannibal crossing the Alps, threatened the existence of everyone, everything, nearby?

And who among us hasn't known the smugly immodest joy that accompanies showing our hoard of treasured authors to an unsuspecting non-English-type, knowing they're going to ask: "Wow! Have you read all of these?"

How could you possibly get that reaction by showing someone your Kindle?

Nonetheless, what connects us as Sigma Tau Delta members is not whether we read our books digitally or manually, nor whether our pages are turned by sliding a finger over a screen or by moving a wetted index finger on a smooth page. What we look for, long for, is the connection with worlds outside our own, places we remember but to which we have not yet been, or been with people who open us to ourselves. The real bond is created when we find others who share our love of a particular novelist or poet, or when we find someone else who daily lives out a celebration of words, a dance of language gliding in and out of pages and conversations.

Let's face it. We're language hoarders, literary name-droppers, flagrant language lovers (lexiphiles), willing to sell our dignity for a chance to display our verbal acuity. We revel in the elegant use of language; we string words together as though they were rare pearls; we cast them out and collect them back, looking for every connection, listening for every nuance, trying them on like new shoes to see and feel what fits us or what squeezes too tightly.

Who among us hasn't perked up when hearing someone drop a reference such as "Call me Ishmael," "What bloody man is that?" or "Because I could not stop for death?" Our spirits soar when we realize we caught the allusion and that we've somehow mysteriously connected with the author, the speaker, and with others who also "get it."

This is where the Sigma Tau Delta community comes into play. Our Society membership allows us to be in places and spaces where we can bond with other like-minded persons who, like us, do well in this discipline because we all love the play of language. Whether it's in the creation or the study of poetry, prose, drama, or linguistics, together we can dance the surfaces and dive the depths, doing so not alone but with others whose insights help us, as C. S. Lewis writes, to see further in and farther up.

As Sigma Tau Delta moves into its 89th year, I encourage you to keep connecting; keep reading—whether from a reader-worn paperback, a much-underlined classroom text, or whatever form is most comfortable for you. Participate in the community of your local chapter and in our international community of chapters, and share these great experiences of lexiphiles current and past, here and elsewhere. It's what a learned community does.