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The Truth is Still Alive and Well by David Shribman
In my line of work I hear the plaint often: Something-or-other (synonyms: the Internet, mobile devices, Twitter) is the death of writing. Or the death of letters. Or the death of news. Or the death of literacy. There sure is a lot of dying going on.
I’ll concede the death of letters. I think I got one this year from a sane person, and many scores from people who probably aren’t or who most certainly are in prison. (Inmates write a lot of letters to newspaper editors. Often they want to date the female reporters. I’m not a dating service.)
But the thoughtful letter from abroad is deader than Jacob Marley, and the discursive letter from college or between friends, on life support a decade ago, is dead, too. Gone. That’s a shame; read the letters of Theodore Roosevelt, and you will see an active, inquisitive mind at work, or read the letters of Daniel Webster, and you will see a man who is a dreamer struggling with another version of himself who is a schemer, and you’ll understand why the words ``Devil’’ and ``Daniel Webster’’ flow so easily off the tongue, or the keyboard. In his complete collection of letters, published in book form in six illustrated volumes in November but also available on the web, Vincent van Gogh says: "Writing is actually an awful way to explain things to each other.’’ He’s wrong, of course. And if the letter is dead, the blog is alive and well. If you read that last sentence, you have proved my point.
As for the rest of it—how everything is dying--I’m not so sure.
I am sure, in fact, of one thing quite the opposite. The computer—or the word processor, its handmaiden—has quite definitely improved, rather than destroyed writing. Take the first paragraph of this little blog essay. It’s not a thing of beauty but even so, surely you don’t think I wrote it that way the moment I sat at the keyboard. I played around with it, substituted words, changed a long sentence into sentence fragments (maybe not the greatest literary artifice, but serviceable in this regard). In the old days—within my own lifespan—that would have cost me valuable minutes and a lot of paper. The time you needed to retype the whole thing. The paper you needed when you retyped it. The angst you expended about whether it was worth the time and paper to rewrite the damn thing. In short, in the old days I would have stuck with what I typed in the beginning and to the hell with fixing it. Today I just held down the delete-button and played around a bit.
Thus my theory: The computer is the best thing that ever happened to writing.
I’ll admit to being something of a romantic when it comes to reading, and to be old enough to have been schooled to find delight in the similarity between the word "romantic" and the French word for novel, which is roman. I like a book, the feel of it, the weight of it, the way it seems perfect in the hand (where it wants to be read) the way a baseball sits perfectly in the hand and wants to be thrown. But I am open to the idea that there might be a more cost-efficient way of reading, one that suits my aging eyes, one that suits an aging planet. So I am not prepared to say that the electronic reading devices (and especially the ones that haven’t yet come out) are going to be the death of the novel. The novel died a thousand deaths before we ever heard of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. It will die a thousand more before all of us die.
As for the death of news, I think that is being proven wrong every day. We’re getting news in new, and better, forms every week. The romance–there’s that word again--may be gone but, really, was the romance of the news business in the consuming of it or in the gathering of it (and in the gathering of the gatherers, where real romance thrived)? To ask the question is to answer it. There will be news even if there are not newspapers, but I actually think there will be newspapers, at least as long as Bates dislikes Colby.
Now to the death of literacy. Literacy is the casus belli of much of our cultural conflict, but it is the raison d’etre of this blog, and the reason Colby’s Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs & Civic Engagement and efforts elsewhere, including the News Literacy Project and the groundbreaking work of Howard Schneider at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, are so committed to separating the wheat from the chaff. In our case, it’s not just wheat, but whole wheat.
Let me conclude with a thought and a link. The other day I encountered a particularly beguiling piece of writing, not even 300 words long, tucked away at the very bottom of a newspaper page. It was a little essay by Mark Cocker of the Guardian newspaper in England, one installment of a column on natural history and country life that the paper has run for more than a century, which means even before BASIC and Fortran, and it began this way:
When the half-moon rose and dusk fell on the town's special Christmas market, nightfall seemed to bring only a deeper sense of intimacy and atmosphere to the heart of this delightful place. A drop in temperature also made the seasonal lights burn brighter. In one young Norwegian maple I noticed that its leafless branches were threaded with a circle of five twinkling white stars and eight other illuminations that attempt to mimic the momentary downward glow of a falling comet.
You can read the whole thing, a glimpse of Bury St. Edmunds at holidaytime, right here. It will take you only a minute, maybe two. Having tried it both ways (in the paper, where it is a half dozen or so words shorter, and on the screen, where you get the whole thing) I can tell you that the beauty of those 287 words rings true—and ringing true is what this whole thing is about—either way. Nothing’s dying, except maybe our capacity to imagine how robust is the truth, and how robust is a truth well expressed, and how it cannot die.
David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.