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…