Basic Richards

So Much Nearer: Essays Toward a World English

by I.A. Richards
Harcourt, Brace & World, 288 pp., $7.50

Design for Escape: World Education Through Modern Media

by I.A. Richards
Harcourt, Brace & World, 158 pp., $2.45 paperback (paper)

I. A. Richards
I. A. Richards; drawing by David Levine

When, like other civilizations, ours has become a matter for archeology, we can be sure that decipherment will identify a large group of writings given up to warnings of disaster and urging action before too late. If Design for Escape turns up, a glance at the Preface will put it in this class, but instead of the political, economic, moral, or scientific remedies he expects, the archeologist will note that this unusual example begins with a typographical exercise, a set of nine variants of our usual quotation marks. Dr. Richards offers them as means of distinguishing among the different uses to which the ordinary marks are now put: to suggest, for instance, that the word so marked is nonsense, or that it must be taken in some specially defined sense, or that we are discussing the word itself rather than using it for what it means.

But nine! Will this degree of ingenious discrimination justify itself in what follows? And can such an exercise genuinely contribute toward man’s escape from “a world situation he has, for lack of design, allowed to entrap him” and which may “destroy or maim him unless he can free himself in time”? When Richards estimates at only fifteen years the time left before violence takes over in a world of increasingly disproportionate distribution of wealth to population numbers, his approach by way of specialized quotation marks is a still more challenging eccentricity.

His mind is original and independent. Practical Criticism has probably had greater influence on the teaching of English literature at universities than any other book of the half century following the war of 1914-18. Many who admired that book have been sorry that he turned in other directions; but it is just because he is so original and inventive that he turned away to follow his own unpredictable route. Now, looking back over his work, much of which is represented on a small scale in these essays, we are likely to seek (and with Richards’s implicit encouragement) some unifying principle bringing together the work of the literary critic, the philosopher of language, the educational theorist, the exponent of ancient Chinese thought, the advocate of Basic English, and the teacher who has a warm welcome for computerized programmed instruction.

It was a feature of his work from the first that he refused to separate his specialized scholarship from the main line of current events. Science and Poetry as a title and an indication of outlook in a Cambridge don was more striking in the Twenties than it would be now. And when, in an excellent essay in So Much Nearer, he examines problems of translating Mencius, he is concerned not just with a teacher of the fourth century B.C. but with ways of thinking that are fundamentally different in China and the West and constitute, as he shows in another essay, part of the…

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