It would have been better by far had I started this blog 30 years ago when people were still oriented to print and reading was still a done thing. But wait … there wasn’t an Internet 30 years ago, silly me! How times have changed. I’ve just been doing some research on the decline of reading and was surprised to find so much hue and cry issuing forth in the media. It’s a non-issue for most people these days, it seems to me. Literary reading has never been a chief occupation of the general public in the United States or anywhere else, for that matter. There are those with a taste for detective or romance novels, yes, and there are the sci-fi buffs, but even those numbers appear to be dropping according to the statistics.
An editorial piece from New England’s Valley News (here) had this to say just a couple days ago:
The latest data on the subject comes from the American Time Use Survey, which is compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and which is based on a nationally representative sample of 26,000 individuals. As The Washington Post reported in an analysis that appeared in the Sunday Valley News, the share of Americans 15 and older who read for pleasure on any given day has fallen sharply since 2004, from 28 percent in that year to 19 percent last year. Looked at in another way, the average aggregate reading time among Americans has dropped from 23 minutes per person per day in 2004 to 17 minutes per person per day in 2017. The Pew Research Center has more bad news on this front: About a quarter of American adults say they haven’t read a book, in whole or in part, in any form — print, electronic or audio — during the previous year, a segment of the population that has nearly tripled since 1978.
Tim Challies, a blogger and book reviewer, wrote a piece last year entitled “The Rise of Digital Technologies and the Decline of Reading” (here) that brings forward the point that it’s better to watch a good video on a topic than to read a mediocre book about it. He has a point. Who wouldn’t rather watch a video of Mary Berry baking a cake in her lovely Buckinghamshire kitchen than plow through a print recipe devoid of the visuals and the tips captured during the video shoot? On the other hand, is watching the movie version of Doctor Zhivago the same thing as reading the book? I think not. And reliance on YouTube as the major source of input limits you to that universe of content, which is not the Universe in its vastness. It’s only a small subset of the content available to human beings today through all the formats in existence. Many of those formats are based on print, of course. The issue of enforced selectivity doesn’t get enough credit in such discussions IMHO.
What about other places in the world? Is the same trend observable across the globe? In 2016 Niall McCarthy on the website Statista gave a breakdown showing those countries where people spent the most time reading. Here is the chart:
I was shocked to discover that Americans read more (although not much more) per week than the Brits. It offers a mild rebuttal to dear old Oscar Wilde, to whom is attributed the quip, “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” Take that, Oscar, you limey creepster LOL.
Millennials apparently still read, but they do it differently, according to an article (here) on the website “Millenial Marketing” that cites a book, Grown Up Digital, by consultant Don Tapscott, in which appears this quote from a 22 year-old Floridian on his way to study at Oxford:
“I don’t read books per se, I go to Google and I can absorb relevant information quickly. Some of this comes from books. But sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good use of my time as I can get all the information I need faster through the web. You need to know how to do it — to be a skilled hunter.”
As I’ve commented elsewhere (somewhat grumpily), this is the standard modern take on accessing information. Everything’s on the web, so think youngsters today, which means they only pull information from that universe of content. There are other information universes available, to be sure, but they’re in print and not necessarily available online, which makes them for all intents and purposes non-existant. Such things may still be important to academics doing heavy-duty research, but for “normal” people, including a college student headed to Oxford (that bastion of tradition), what’s not online simply doesn’t figure in the scheme of useful information. That attitude represents another example of the enforced selectivity mentioned above, which I find particularly irksome because in my own fields of endeavor some things I need are not online, they exist only in manuscript or in print.
But I’m hardly one to talk objectively about all this business: I have an advanced degree in literary studies and have read voraciously all my life. I’m a dinosaur now into the bargain LOL (post on that topic here), so in a certain sense I’m disqualified from the get go. I still read as I’ve always read, with undiminished enthusiasm, and books are among my best friends. I read most of them on my Kindle now, not on paper, because my life context prohibits my having all my print books around me as I wish were possible. It would cost a fortune to ship them to my overseas abode, so I thank my lucky stars that my Kindle makes a library possible through a device that fits easily in one hand. If I were asked to name the single greatest benefit I have from the Age of Technology, it would be the e-reader, hands down, tied with my laptop, without which I couldn’t create things for use on technology platforms like the one we’re using right now. The advantages of such tools are manifold and manifest. Even so, they’re not the be all and end all. And they don’t make a writer a good writer.
Writing is done for an audience, unless you’re talking about journals meant for the writer’s eyes only, so the process of writing is intimately bound up with how the people for whom you write actually read. I’d given that matter some thought before I began the blog project, but after I jumped in with both feet I realized that the platforms I use for content creation themselves impose assumptions on authorship and constrain the writer to certain practices I had no desire to adopt because of the kind of content I create. Unsurprisingly, the platform’s root assumptions are commercial and geared to writing for a readership of the lowest common denominator. Well, I’m not selling anything. I’m not pitched on “monetizing” my website, as appears to be all the rage these days. Instead, I set out to create an online resource that involves multiple content domains, none of which is trendy and most of which are decidedly “retro” in this day and age. My dinosaurian status also led me to consider as primary the matter of language, the craft of writing, which in the past was always an unspoken root assumption of authors no matter what the particular purpose of their writing. The use of what could be called a literary register was standard practice, whether in literature or for commerce or government. It was important across the boards to write well. Advertising copy from 19th century England, for example, shows the same care taken over wordcraft evident in literary works of the period. Writers of commercial copy at that time weren’t gearing their output to someone who had only finished elementary school. Authors who came from the middle or working classes adopted the literary register as a matter of course when they created their works. It was, quite simply, the done thing.
What has happened to language by this late date of 2018? Compared to its precursors of the 19th or early 20th centuries, it has changed out of all recognition. There’s no longer a cultural standard to which writers conform as a matter of course, language is now a matrix of voices each specific to a particular sector of the population. The spoken registers of the language change very quickly. The way a millennial talks is not the same as the way his or her parents talk, that’s how quickly language shifts these days. If linguistic diversity is your goal, then you have it in spades, job done and dusted. But there’s a problem, in my view, because some babies that should have been brought along from the past have been thrown out with the historical bathwater — just as I soon will be, dinosaur that I am. 🙂
What has been lost, I think, is a stance toward language as a collaborator of consciousness. I sometimes read authors from the historical periods mentioned with the sole purpose of honing my skill at crafting language that captures thought in the way authors from that time did it. The sentence structure they use is, of course, obsolete these days. Now things run on the sound bite model, short and simple, no fancy stuff please, and for God’s sake no clauses! Nobody has the time for clauses, what are you thinking? Similarly, vocabulary has been reduced to the lowest common denominator and anybody who uses big words in the way words were commonly used in literate writing in the early 20th century will be considered an elitist or wilfully obfuscatory — in the States, in any case, if not necessarily in the UK. The gripping element in historical writing for me is the constant sense of consciousness actively moulding the words to itself, like shrink wrap closing around a package when the vacuum is applied. Modern writing more resembles a quick pencil sketch — throw something on the page and leave the reader to sort it out. And NO FRILLS, thank you very much, we have things to do and people to see. One gets the impression that authors aren’t really bothered whether you get the full meaning or not — it seems probable they themselves aren’t quite sure what the full meaning is. Everything is approximate, or, to use the American phrase, “close enough for government work.” The approach to language is casual and imprecise. One could, if one were grumpy, call it lazy.
Let’s look at some passages from early 20th century writing and see what they look like in the flesh rather than just talking abstractions. Rebecca West was a firebrand feminist in her young days and wrote for radical papers in her early 20’s. The vigor and clarity of her prose astonishes me, especially when one considers that it comes from a woman who is barely out of her teens. Here’s a passage from a review of plays by Granville-Barker she wrote for The Freewoman in 1912:
… Perhaps Barker realises now that one finds oneself no nearer the essential things of life by going back to the peasantry than a civilised man would achieve freedom by joining a savage tribe. He would find the religious ceremonies of an African tribe more complex than those of the Church of England; he would find the etiquette of beads far stricter than any decree of fashion in Mayfair, and the marriage laws would be more irrational than those of Holy Church herself. And in the same way the peasant has to live up to more superstitions than the most over-civilised town-dweller. He is bound to the past, which is no guide to us. Perhaps if Barker returned to the manner of Ann Leete, in which he speaks with a vivid dramatic idiom he has since obscured by echoes of Shaw and the Fabian Society, he might suggest some other way to freedom. As it is, he has given us a strong hatred, the best lamp to bear in our hands as we go over the dark places of life, cutting away the dead things men tell us to revere.
That last sentence is magnificent, a foreshadowing of all the other great sentences West would write later in her career. And look, there are long sentences with semicolons, placed carefully to concatenate the thoughts elegantly in their sequence. I can’t remember when I last used a semi-colon, and if you ask a millennial what a semi-colon is and how to use it properly, I wager to say you’ll get a blank look in response. Remember: West had a regular education for girls of her time and wrote that passage at the age of twenty. Yes indeed, times have changed.
Here’s another voice from the early 20th century, Virginia Woolf, from her piece published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays on the great French letter writer Madame de Sévigné:
This great lady, this robust and fertile letter writer, who in our age would probably have been one of the great novelists, takes up presumably as much space in the consciousness of living readers as any figure of her vanished age. But it is more difficult to fix that figure within an outline than so to sum up many of her contemporaries. That is partly because she created her being, not in plays or poems, but in letters — touch by touch, with repetitions, amassing daily trifles, writing down what came into her head as if she were talking. Thus the fourteen volumes of her letters enclose a vast open space, like one of her own great woods; the rides are crisscrossed with the intricate shadows of branches, figures roam down the glades, pass from sun to shadow, are lost to sight, appear again, but never sit down in fixed attitudes to compose a group.
Woolf is a musical voice and half a poet even though prose was her medium. This is discursive prose, not fiction, written for publication as a review in a periodical of the day. That notwithstanding, the great care and attention given to the flow of thoughts and the sound of the language in the mind as one reads are obvious. Woolf is orchestrating a composition. This prose, albeit workaday for a review for which she would be paid as a journalist, still has all the best characteristics of the prose in her works of fiction. And yes, there are semi-colons. Egad! Who has time for those? I’ve got bingo at the Golden Years Community Center in an hour and I don’t even have my toupee on yet 🙂
There’s an excellent article on our topic by Philip Yancey in The Washington Post from July 21, 2017 (here). Let’s take a quote from him as a basis for comparison:
The Internet and social media have trained my brain to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around. When I read an online article from the Atlantic or the New Yorker, after a few paragraphs I glance over at the slide bar to judge the article’s length. My mind strays, and I find myself clicking on the sidebars and the underlined links. Soon I’m over at CNN.com reading Donald Trump’s latest tweets and details of the latest terrorist attack, or perhaps checking tomorrow’s weather.
Worse, I fall prey to the little boxes that tell me, “If you like this article [or book], you’ll also like…” Or I glance at the bottom of the screen and scan the teasers for more engaging tidbits: 30 Amish Facts That’ll Make Your Skin Crawl; Top 10 Celebrity Wardrobe Malfunctions; Walmart Cameras Captured These Hilarious Photos. A dozen or more clicks later I have lost interest in the original article.
That’s contemporary American prose. Here’s an example from the UK in an editorial (here) on the National Health Service (NHS) in The Guardian published a few days ago:
Patriotism and nostalgia may be elements in our loyalty to an institution born out of the ashes of war. But it is essential to say, and keep on saying, that it is perfectly rational to feel positive about the health service. Last year the US-based Commonwealth Fund placed the NHS top of its rankings. Last week another study offered a more mixed picture, with the NHS’s strong points of equal access and efficiency highlighted alongside below-average clinical outcomes, and low numbers of doctors, nurses and beds. “A perfectly ordinary healthcare system” was the summary offered by the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ director, Paul Johnson.
I find no major differences in tone or vocabulary between the two modern examples. There should, I think, be differences given the difference in point of origin and linguistic history involved, but no, we have a sameness before us. Functional prose, that’s what I’d call it. It won’t inspire you to consider more carefully your use of adjectives nor will it foment revolution in your approach to syntax. It gets the job done. If we conceptualize its equivalent in clothing, it’s like wearing khaki slacks and Dockers. There are no tailored tweed suits or single strands of pearls in the picture as was the case in the prose of the early 20th century.
The issues of language register and voice were chief among the elements I considered carefully when beginning the blog project. Since I have no commercial interests to fulfill in the marketplace, I’m free to do as I like. I chose to strike a tone as close to that of the early 20th century as possible, with the freedom to use for the sake of playfulness or irony registers used by various groups today. It amuses me to imitate (badly, I’m sure) the millennial voice, with its flatness and boilerplate significators of the one-size-fits-all variety — it’s language as the verbal equivalent of coitus interruptus. I find Internat chat abbreviations hilarious. I try not to use the F word as often as kids do these days because it’s unladylike — you can’t be swearing like a stevedore if you expect people to picture you with a single strand of pearls, can you. Of course not. So keep it clean, Mavis, and think what the Queen Mum would say.
I am myself an anachronism at this point, so I see no harm in adopting an anachronistic approach to my writing. The quality of language to which I aspire is already a thing of the past, an extinct thing like the great awk or the dodo. The fossil record of it is still among us, however, and you can even buy it at Amazon for your Kindle, so the margins to which I find myself relegated are still found on the map. My self-marginalization goes along beautifully with retirement, which is all about marginalization when you look under the hood of the thing and see the power plant. In the post I wrote about Virginia Woolf and the cultivation of consciousness (here) I addressed the matter of the mental stance necessary for writing as she wrote. What about the issue of language? Does the vehicle one uses to express a state or product of consciousness have any influence on that consciousness itself, or is it simply a matter of mechanics? I can only speak from my own experience, and experience shows me that the vehicle does indeed influence the consciousness expressed by means of the creative tension between the consciousness and the effort to make its linguistic vehicle as ample a means for expression as possible. So I when I read authors like West and Woolf I’m mindful as much of their vehicle — the quality and tone of their language — as I am of their thoughts. The vehicle they used has its own demands, in point of fact. The thoughts demand for their expression clarity and precision. The language requires to meet that demand craftsmanship and poise. Approximations will not do, an exact fit between thought and language is fundamental to the nature of that expression. One need only remember Flaubert and his le mot juste, the right word, which he would go through agonies to find if necessary. I chose the same modus operandi because I wanted to engage the pressure of those linguistic demands and to do my best to meet them. I use past masters like West and Woolf as guides to help me toward the same kind of glove-like fit between thought and language they achieved in their works. It requires considerable effort, which I engage wholeheartedly in an attempt to reach the quality of writing they produced. It’s a solitary occupation these days, to be sure — contemporary culture will give you nothing but disinterest for your trouble. Content management platforms are a good case in point.
I find myself forced to ride roughshod over the underlying assumptions that structure the platforms I use to get my writing online. Particularly interesting as a condition enforcer is the search engine optimization (SEO) plugin I use, which gives all manner of tips and warnings about what’s good and what’s wrong with what I’ve written. My readability score is consistently in the toilet — my paragraphs are too long, my sentence structure too complex, and God knows what other sins heap upon my head that the plugin scores but doesn’t enumerate. In my opinion, the criteria used to determine the SEO score are nearly all dumbdown factors. Does your core keyword appear in the first paragraph of the text? Is your keyword density high enough? In other words, do you limit yourself to constant repetition of the main topic to make your text tasty to a web crawler or to someone with short-term memory impairment? Am I writing for a web crawler? Do I care whether Google latches on to my content and works some magic that gives it a higher ranking than the text of some other website? Am I trying to write text that can be understood by somebody who has only finished sixth grade?
Not a bit of it. I guess I’ll never be famous. 🙁 There goes that sea-view condo in Monte Carlo out the window. Blast and damn.
I’d love to put the texts from West and Woolf quoted above into the SEO plugin and see what happens. I think I know: they’ll bomb out and get a red dot because their score is in the tank. In my compromise position as a modern author subject to modern criteria of acceptability, I attempt to bridge the gap and often manage to fake out the SEO plugin so that I get a green dot without reducing my vocabulary or syntax to something that could be produced by someone with a mild cognitive disability. My readability score, however, is and will always remain in the toilet. I categorically refuse to adopt the sentence-as-sound-bite model. My reason is simple: it’s the linguistic equivalent of lobotomy. Can’t be doing with that, thanks very much. I have a brain and I intend to use it. If people can’t follow, then so be it. I’m creating a record of an authorial voice, a written map of a particular consciousness, not monetizing content in the hope that someday soon I can start merchandizing and add an e-commerce page for online orders of T-shirts and ballcaps. God forbid.
The structural prejudice of content management platforms and of the publishing business these days strikes me as insidious because it acts as a deterrent to the emergence of new voices that embrace linguistic experimentation and innovation. James Joyce comes to mind — Ulysses would get red dots in every category in my SEO plugin; Finnegan’s Wake would probably not even be recognized as parsable text. (OMG I just used a semi-colon! 🙁 … mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) If the dumbed-down, functional text that gets the thumbs up from an SEO plugin is the new cultural norm that has replaced the literary voice of the 19th and early 20th centuries, can we legitimately call that progress? It’s a historical development, no one can deny that, but I hesitate to call it progress because it’s static and formulaic to the point of being inert. It’s non-reactive with the human imagination. It occupies a stable valence state so that it will never catch a free radical thought and interact with it to form a new compound. To my mind, that makes it dull as dishwater — which is how I’d describe much of the writing one reads these days. Functional, yes, but hardly exciting or invigorating or challenging. For text of that sort one must go back in history a bit.
I’m hardly pining for the good old days, because I can still get my hands on the older things whenever I like, in ways far better than were available in the good old days themselves. I bought the complete works of Virginia Woolf for my Kindle for one dollar. Yes, Bridget, you read it right, one dollar. It hardly bespeaks a high cultural value put on dear Virginia’s output to have it sold off at such a jumble sale price, but I’m not complaining. I was DELIRIOUS with delight to find available her complete works for my Kindle at a cost lower than what I pay for decent cup of coffee in a cafe. This is technology finally making good on its promise to improve the human condition. And about damn time, too.
As for my own activity as an author, it makes scant difference how or what I write, since I inhabit that dusky land on the fringes of online content with text full of keywords nobody ever searches. If I were writing about pics of Beyonce caught naked on the beach, I’d break the Internet. But reading? Literature? Critical theory? For heaven’s sake, don’t make me laugh. So it’s all good, I’ll continue on my merry way doing a poor imitation of the elegant, exciting writing that stopped before I was born. And I cover all the bases, since I doff my hat to the exigencies of SEO, so I can’t justly be faulted for being a complete anachronism. I even have proof of my success in that regard from the scores for this very post:
One out of two ain’t bad … 🙂