Senate Resolution 310 proclaims today, Oct. 20, as the National Day on Writing. Sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Day on Writing seeks to promote personal, professional, and civic writing in all its forms and celebrates writing by establishing a National Writing Gallery to display all the writing created on National Writing Day.
The Senate resolution passed only because nowhere in its text are the words "health care" or "communism"; there is no mention of the colors red or pink; and so far as the administration's leftist agenda is concerned, unless they belong to faith-based organizations, left-handed writers are specifically prohibited from receiving government funds for any writing-related activities.
There was no public writing option for conservatives to oppose, and no attempt to lessen the penalties for the medicinal use of words banned by the FCC, but Republicans still refused to support the measure, maybe because the resolution praised "the social nature of writing," a phrase that sounded too much like socialism for them. Maine's Olympia Snowe was the only Republican who voted with the Democrats to make writing legal.
With everybody except a few conservatives celebrating writing, it might surprise us to look back and see that people once thought writing was actually a bad thing. In ancient Greece, when few people could read and fewer still could write, Socrates warned his fellow Athenians that writing would weaken human memory, that when they lost their shopping lists they'd quickly forget what to buy when they went to the Agora. We remember what Socrates said because Plato wrote it down.
Socrates also objected to writing because it wasn't interactive -- this was long before text messaging -- and because the written word gave only a distant and incomplete picture of the reality to which it referred. Writing, Socrates complained, can't answer questions the way a real live human being can. If you ask a piece of paper something, all it can do is repeat the same words over and over. Writing, Socrates told his companion Phaedrus over and over again, is like a broken record.
And it's not just writing. Every time a new communication technology comes along, critics complain about it. Once we finally got used to handwritten documents, some doomsayers objected that the newly-invented printing press produced documents that were, well, superficial -- despite the fact that the first book Gutenberg printed was a Bible.
One sixteenth-century critic of the new print technology observed that a scribe actually carved words into a piece of parchment, the way a farmer ploughed seed into the land. Writing by hand was an act that put a little of the writer into the message, and it required some elbow grease to boot. But printing was an impersonal process that just painted words onto the surface of a piece of paper, with no trace of the author or the scribe, not even any DNA.
And the typewriter? Even worse -- it not only increased the distance between the author, the written word, and the reader, but it was also very noisy.
Henry David Thoreau complained in Walden that the proposed telegraph between Maine and Texas was just a useless toy: "Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." But the telegraph -- sometimes called the nineteenth century's internet -- was an immediate success. Even so, Samuel Morse, inventor both of the telegraph and its code, was skeptical of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone: who would use a machine, he wondered, that made no written record of a conversation?
Now there's the computer and the internet. In the digital age, anyone with a laptop, a wi-fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks can put material into cyberspace. The digital revolution means everyone's an author, every day is National Writing Day. And this sudden democratizing of the writing process generates its own set of complaints:
- it's wrong to give so many people access to authorship -- after all, most people won't be very good at it, and some people are going to write things that we don't agree with
- computers make writing too easy -- something so important should only come with effort -- no pain, no gain -- maybe we should increase the entrance fees?
- we need to control, license, censor what's on the 'net: after all, the web is full of lies, misinformation, nonsense, pornography, fraud, Nigerian money scams, and hate, not to mention all those pictures of little cats
But despite the complaints, writers everywhere are grabbing their keyboards, writing for work, for school, and for personal fulfillment. Over 5,000 writers uploaded their texts to the National Writing Gallery, though millions more simply wrote, because, given a computer, everyone seems to have something to say.
And it turns out that there are readers out there willing to read whatever we upload. The internet has given the new digital writers what writers in the pre-internet age have always sought: readers. Sometimes it's a nanoaudience -- just a few people clicking on what we write. And sometimes a text goes viral, reaching thousands if not millions.
I spent several years writing my latest book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers and the Digital Revolution, and if it's like the other six books I've written, then ten or twenty thousand people will read it, maybe a little more. But my blog, the Web of Language, pulls 25,000 readers every month, and I spend, not years, but hours, writing it.
In the end, new technologies of communication turn out to be neither as bad as their critics fear, nor as wonderful as their fans predict. Socrates was wrong. Writing didn't make us forget -- we still clutter our brains with lots of unnecessary information, from baseball stats to jump-rope rhymes, from song lyrics to lines from our favorite movies, even if we can never seem to remember what we're supposed to buy when we get to the grocery store.
What new technologies do is allow us to create new forms of communication -- the printing revolution enabled everything from the novel to the paper money we use to buy those novels. The digital revolution has its down side, to be sure (don't send your credit card numbers to Nigeria), but it has also enabled the blog, instant messaging, texting, Wikipedia, eBay, YouTube, the National Writing Gallery, and a whole set of communication practices that have yet to be invented.
Senate Resolution 310 "encourages all Americans to write." Socrates might have a problem with such advice, not because it smacks too much of socialism, but because he didn't trust writing. Plus Socrates probably thought that most Athenians weren't qualified to write -- the city may have been the world's first democracy, but unless you were a property-owning free adult male, your vote didn't count, and neither did your ideas.
A box of Thoreau drawing pencils, together with a packet of pencils made by John Thoreau and Co., the business founded by Thoreau's father and uncle
And S.R. 310 further encourages us to take advantage of all the writing technologies available, from the pencil to the pixel. Given his skepticism about the telegraph, you'd think Thoreau might have a problem with that. But he was an engineer as well as a transcendentalist, and he spent as much time perfecting the pencils made by his family's business, the Thoreau pencil company, as he did observing life at Walden Pond. So if Thoreau were alive today, he'd probably be keying in his complaints about the information superhighway using a computer that he put together from spare parts in his garage.
Transcendental meditation: the image of Thoreau floats above the garage where Steve Jobs put together his first Apple computer