This Hyperliterate Era

Are we worse writers today than folks from previous generations? Does our two-thumbed “txtng” make us literary cretins (and bad spellers)? Is “the death of the handwritten letter” a fait accompli?

My mother, bless her heart, bought me The Art of the Handwritten Note for Christmas twelve years ago. I still have it:

Art Handwritten Note

This is what she inscribed on the title page:

Dear Henry,

Your extraordinary grandmother would like you to have this little book! She was a beautiful person and writer, too.

Much love,

Mom

I’m really not raggin’ on Mom right now. Love you, Mom! I share this because it expresses a sentiment of many millions of people: We can’t write anymore. The idea is that our parents and grandparents (all of whom wrote in flowing cursive no doubt) wrote deeper, more personal, more heartfelt handwritten letters. All this newfangled “txtspk” with two thumbs has ruined our spelling at the very least and made us terrible writers at worst.

I’m currently reading Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better, by Clive Thompson. The author makes a compelling case that while our online writing may look less civilized than our paper and pen missives of the past, online writing in its many forms is making us more, not less, literate.

First, he makes the case that the “good old days” of letter writing were not as good as we think. At the height of the golden age of English letter writing–the end of the 19th century–most upper crust Britons received only one or two letters a week. And this was in an era of junk mail (albeit much less than today), business correspondence, and mail scams. Like today, many letters back then were not from friends and loved ones.

Second, in American education, reading has been emphasized more than writing. Children were told to read everyday, but much less often were they told to write every day. Reading was to be done at school and at home and at the public library. Writing? At school and maybe a little for homework. Nowadays, most of us are writing throughout the day, via email or text. Clearly we are writing much more than we used to. But does all this writing count when it’s “txtspk?”

Thompson points out that much of our writing today happens in real time. You send an email or text and you might get an immediate response, which of course was not the case in the “golden age” of letter writing. Yes, writers might have been more thoughtful as missives were less frequent, but the “real time” effect makes emailing and texting, at its best, more like “real time” dialogue and discourse. People actually exchange, debate and refine ideas in emails, blogs, and on social media. Online, people have real-time conversations about things that matter. Yes, there’s plenty of dross in online writing–we see it on our screens every day–but there’s also a lot of outstanding content out there written by everyday people.

And the internet has made everyone a publisher. If you write on Facebook, Twitter or other social media, there’s an audience, and an audience has a big effect. Many of us have hundreds of friends. Did such an audience exist for nearly everyone “back in the day?” The audience means “we know someone’s looking,” and we better write well. If you want to be taken seriously online, you need to write clearly and logically, and concede points when faced with strong evidence against your arguments. We have all tuned out the people who send cat video links and spam. The people whom we pay attention to are clever, fun, smart…they’re good writers!

I’ll blog more about the book as I make my way through it. (I’ve read about a quarter of it.)

And Mom, I promise I’ll write more handwritten letters…

2 thoughts on “This Hyperliterate Era

  1. This debate is lasting and of lasting interest to me. Apparently Plato complained that if people wrote stuff down they would stop using their brains as much for discourse.

    1. I LOVE that little volume: she wrote another about personal letters as well. I love the Note one especially, albeit two disclaimers: I didn’t need to read it to be convinced and…I know Margaret, love her work (you should see her calligraphy!), taught all 4 of her kids, so possibly biased.

    1a. If the anecdote about Jackie Kennedy (p.109) doesn’t choke you up, you should check your pulse.

    2. I am a HUGE fan of handwritten notes, letters, the organic experience of recording by hand. I am also a HUGE fan of the post office and all the delayed gratification associated with mail. Postage stamps will never be too expensive to be worth it. I think one of the sneaky growth experiences of going to summer camp where there are no electronics is learning to love mail — the creative ways to send it, and the joy in getting it.

    2a. I can afford postage stamps. But ANYone can walk into the public library and send messages by email for free (true at least for now: support your infrastructure!)

    3. I think that NONE of the above is in conflict with electronic writing, communicating, debating. Short stuff on line is no different than, “bisy backson” or “xox” scribbled on a scrap. Polished stuff either way requires time, thought, agonized searches for the right word, just as it always has: if you really want people to stick with your writing, that is. No difference between clicking on / shutting and shelving the book.

    4. Some of us love wordcraft, some don’t. Some will always send the shortest written thing possible no matter what, and prefer personal presence or a phone call. Multiple intelligences, doncha know.

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  2. OH! I forgot to include this highly recommended title: How To Write Short by Roy Peter Clark. It’s GREAT, and not only because it shows how “write short” is not in conflict with “write quality”

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