Friday, October 16, 2009

Writing As It Was

A long time ago, speech was the main mode of communication. Few people knew how to read, let alone write. Those who were literate were held in high esteem, and only works of great significance were actually written down. Everything else was oral.

Even once most laypeople knew how to read and write, they wrote with care. Letters were often well thought-out chronicles of a person's life and thoughts. They were things which were treasured. Writing was not cheap, either. Ink cost money, paper cost money - a person used these things prudently and conscientiously.

Today, we approach writing differently. Everyone writes. Everyone sends text messages and IMs, people write status messages and emails in shorthand. Whole words are a thing of the past, grammar is ancient history, and how much thought actually goes into most texts and emails? How personally can we actually take a thing of writing addressed to us? How much care goes into those words?

Everyone these days seems to have a blog. The entire world has turned into one big party of journalism. Some aspects of blogging are an imperative part of what brings society together: open communication. The more we are able to communicate with one another and - even more important - the more we are able to actually listen to one another, the greater our understanding will be of those different from ourselves.

Hirhurim linked to an article that has some fair critiques of the blogging world, but that also makes an excellent reminder about what good writing ought to be:

"Writers who expect sustained public inspection tend to think long and hard before publishing. Readers who assume writers have thought long and hard tend to read with intense attention. This leads, in general, to good writing, good reading, and good thinking. Such an environment is a precondition for vigilant citizenship and a civil society vibrant with critical intelligence. What is more, this environment disciplines speedy, prolific, lively writers, ultimately to their own advantage.

Of course I have no idea what policies, programs, or movements could plausibly revive what Postman calls the Typographic Mind. The only solution I know is a slow, personal one: It is the painful discipline of changing my own detestable habits of inattention, sloppiness, and waggish opportunism in daily conversation, whether written or oral, and of writing with the assumption that my reader's attention is generous and his time valuable.


Certainly, indolence, cowardice, or vanity can hide behind pretended reverence for words, but irreverence seems quite obviously the more pressing danger. A little care and humility is in order, for words are the main vehicle of culture and science, and the vital medium of a free republic. They bind the living and the dead, God and man into a communion of love and knowledge. Words are not lifeblood, except in the sense that they are."

We clearly approach the written word differently today than we did centuries - or even merely decades - ago. But perhaps it's good to remember that writing is a thing which used to be shown respect, that reverence was given to those who were good at it, and that thought and care used to go into every stroke of ink on the page. Maybe we can still treat the written word that way now.


Freeda said...

If only we'd treat the spoken word in the same manner. The same way, any blogger will (hopefully) reread their post before pressing publish, we should think and rethink our words before letting them loose.

Northern Light said...

As with most everything, there's an upside and downside to the opportunity to verbally and typographically express.

About the time of the Correcting Selectric typewriter, which cost me $1,200, but before PCs, pundits worried that written words were doomed. Children couldn't write or spell or type. Now, however, everyone regularly must translate thoughts and spoken ideas into writing. That in itself is good. With the sheer explosion of volume of the written word, especially on the Web, more people are thinking, analyzing, reaching out, connecting and...being less isolated.

The downside is that with the new good stuff put out there comes plenty of bad stuff. But attentive readers can now copy-paste-SAVE the good stuff; it doesn't just disappear in a private breath. More people can leave their marks on the world and those about whom they care. Without your blog, we'd all be much poorer.

Erachet said...

Freeda - True.

Northern Light - Thank you!