Word Watch – February 2006

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Woe is us! We live in a degenerate age. Nobody reads any- more; everybody just visits his favorite blogs. Nobody writes anymore either; everybody just sits at a computer, emitting emails.

How many times have you heard that? Well, it’s not true, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be as bad as it’s made to appear – often by people diffusing such sentiments in emails, or posting them on their favorite blogs.

Believe it or not, people are still reading. Borders and Barnes & Noble aren’t as successful as they are because Americans have stopped reading books and journals. Although many people use these places as surrogate churches, coffee houses, dating services, and public parks, I have actually seen people buying books in them. And the books aren’t necessarily bad. We’re going through a bad patch right now with novels, and a worse patch with poetry, but history, biography, natural history, and many other incitements to read are flourishing mightily, both in quantity and in quality.

And “reading” isn’t confined to books, you know. When I read Emily Dickinson online, I am actually reading Emily Dickinson. The same goes for the Anglo-Saxon text of Beowulf or the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. And the same goes for current political discussion, which occurs in books and journals but also occurs online. The advantage of books and journals is that their texts tend to be much better considered, and their contents much more enduringly accessible, than the texts onesees on blogs or bulletin boards. They look, feel, and smell a lot better, too. But more real writing is going on now than ever before, and more writers have access to the tools of writing, because the new electronic media exist~

So what if people don’t send letters anymore? They can write more messages, and write more urgent and responsive messages, if they write online. They can also write to an incomparably wider audience. A letter that you post on the Internet is still a letter, still a personal communication; but with luck it can become a letter written to millions.

I have visited blogs that are so horrible that, like the world’s great poetry, they can never be evoked in any other terms than their own. Suffice it to say that I have visited blogs written by girls with screen names like Pixie, and guys with names that I don’t like to repeat, even to myself. I have also visited blogs that publish articles and comments of great scholarly interest, great political insight, and great artistic merit. I have seen the way in which the web can organize spontaneous communities of intelligent individuals: not academics, not people who are paid to write, but people who want to write and who care about writing and whose writing has an immediacy and a capacity for development that one seldom sees anywhere else. (I wrote about some of these people in my article “The Truth Versus ‘the Truth'” in the Sept.-October 2003 issue of Liberty, in an article that’s available online at http://libertyunbound.com/archive/2003_1 0/ cox-truth.html.)

I can’t see that any of this destroys the market for books and journals, or furthers the process of literary debasement already so well begun by our public schools. Indeed, it demonstrates that even the public schools cannot completely kill people’s hunger for intelligent and expressive writing.

I have to admit, of course, that the Internet has done some bad things to language. It promotes (as well as exposes) fads and frauds; it seldom reproves, even by example, the growth of subliterate locutions (“a lot,” “LOL”), and it positively encourages the habitual use of jargon that evokes its own ambience: “interface,” “virtual,” “flame,” “firewall,” etc. And, as we recently saw in the saga of the Bird and the Dominoes, it is a perfect agency by which vapid sentiments can institutionalize themselves.

In case you didn’t hear the news that was all over the Internet, some company in Holland decided to beat the Guinness World’s Record for the number of dominoes set off in a single chain reaction. So far, the story was appropriate to the world of print media. The placement of the four million dominoes was reported by newspapers; their successful flattening would be noted by one of the world’s best-selling books. It was the advent of the sparrow that ushered the project into the domain of electronic writing.

A common house sparrow, a creature that is environmentally protected in the Netherlands because there are “only” one million nesting pairs of them, got into the room with the dominoes and, flitting about, succeeded in upsetting 23,000 of them. Before this demolition could go any farther, the sponsors of the event called in a guy with an air rifle, and he killed the bird. Big deal, right? Well, it’s not a big deal to 99%, or more, of the

The bird had metamorphosed into Princess Di.


world’s population, but the remaining 1% can start looking really important when they all get on the Internet and start complaining. And that’s what they did.

The result was that the sponsors of the event expressed their grief and consternation, television broadcasters provided a “commemoration” of the bird’s demise, and a website was created on which people could record, I suppose for the benefit of remote generations, their own expressions of grief. Thousands of people did. The bird, in short, had metamorphosed into Princess Di.

This electronic monument to the death of a sparrow was a disturbing new feature of the European cultural landscape. Given the worldwide reach of the Internet, there is always the possibility that this kind of thing can spread to America. If it does, however, we are well prepared to meet the threat. The Internet is a great medium of nonsense, but it is also a great medium of satire.

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