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On the Decay of Language and the Rise of the Insect Overlords

[Speech to accept a 2002 Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Feed. The speech was delivered at the Boston Athenaeum.]

[Thanks, etc. ...]

We were asked to deliver an acceptance speech of a minute or two. In that time, I’d like to speak to the young writers in the audience.

After reading this book, people ask me whether I feel any hope for the future. I want to say to you: Yes, I do. I absolutely do.

Not hope for the human race; we’re screwed. But I feel tremendous hope for the Insect Overlords who shall succeed us as masters of the Earth.

Whenever we look at the literature of fallen empires, we always gravitate to things that mean something to us “moderns,” too, things that transcend their time. For this reason, if you’re a young writer and you want your books to endure, you may want to ask yourself at this point in your writing career, What will make my books attractive to a race of eight foot tall insects?

For example: Why not just mention occasionally, in passing, that one of your characters has six limbs instead of four? It’s that simple. If you’re writing YA novels, you’re already ahead of the game: Your characters are already addicted to salt and fats, and they scurry under the sofa when the lights are turned on.

The Roman poet Horace wrote: “As the leaves of a forest change at the year’s decline / And the oldest among them fall, so it is with words; / The old generation passes, and those new-born, / Like the young of the human race, flourish and thrive.” Horace, we might note in passing, wrote this passage in Latin – one of the so-called “dead languages.”

We live in a world where our nation’s operational vocabulary is on a plummeting decline, where Dunkin’ Donuts has replaced the cruller with a “glazed stick” and Horace’s own famous injunction, “Carpe diem – seize the day” has been trademarked by a cereal company. We as writers must play our part in wooing our readers away from the anti-intellectualism and self-congratulation that imperil our nation.

As writers for young people, we have the immense privilege of ensuring that the young of our race and our adaptive and piebald language thrive together. Ours is, for that reason, a serious and joyful business.

Let us practice it with urgency and with tenderness, so that we will have nothing to be ashamed of when future generations read our work, perhaps in these very halls and arcades, amidst the whisper of their feet on marble, the chittering of their mandibles.

Thank you.