The Printed Word

Last night I dreamt I was teaching Freshman English. I scrawled a text message abbreviation on the board and asked, "What is this"?

The students looked at me, like, "Duh, it's a text message."

"Yes," I said, "but it's not writing!"

Clearly my concern about the state of the "art" has seeped into my subconscious. And with good reason. Random House is reorganizing. Simon and Schuster has laid folks off as has Houghton Mifflin and the world's largest publisher of English-language Bibles. Our very own Rocky Mountain News--on life support for 20 years--is in peril. Tribune Media just declared Chapter 11. And other papers are outsourcing their reporting to Bangalore!

For those of us who make our livings deploying the English language, these are not good signs.

Apart from petty concerns about career trajectory, yarn budgets and keeping the lights on, I worry as a reader. Will our printed news come to us pre-digested and hopped up on testosterone ala CNN? Will next year's breakout bestseller be Sarah Palin's autobiography? Will the New Yorker "go all People magazine"?

I'm not sure I fully understood Marshall McLuhan's famous assertion, "the medium is the message," until now. Technology (and the economy) is shaping and trimming and revolutionizing communication in ways most of us who read Milton and Dante and Homer as undergraduates never could have imagined. Caught between the printed page of our salad days and the tiny screens of our Blackberries today, we squint at icons, chew ibuprofen for headaches and keep our appointments with the eye doctor. Though there's plenty of evidence to suggest that reading online takes longer, that people scan rather than read, and I would venture a guess, that comprehension suffers, too, young people who cut their teeth on might test very differently. They swim online like sea monkeys.

To bemoan reality is both foolhardy and curmudgeonly. Samuel Johnson's English is not our English. Nor is Steinbeck's diction our diction. My hope for the future, then--my own and that of our culture--is that the publishing industry in all its forms will continue to produce media we can touch and hold and smell, that the market continues to value a story well told and that young people continue to fall truly, madly, deeply for the cadences of well-written prose.

Comments (3) -

December 9. 2008 13:38


ROTFC (Rolling on the floor crying)

Roxanne |

December 10. 2008 08:54


I'm an old newspaperworman.  Was the night news editor of the Paterson (NJ) News (RIP) in the 80s -- an AM daily with a circulation of about 50K.  I left journalism to practice law -- having paid my way through night law school working as a reporter and editor.  I have now left the law for fiber -- owning a yarn store.   But nothing will replace the newspaper.  I started my two girls the same way I started -- reading the comics.  It's not the same on the screen and nothing feels like newsprint in your hands in the morning.  I have hope.

Diana |

December 10. 2008 18:56


We want the print media, but the younger generation is not supporting it by subscribing to it, so the advertisers are not supporting it, because they want to attract the younger generation.  Me?  I'm old!  I take both the Rocky and the Denver Post.  Long live the daily newspaper!!

Sue |

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