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  • Siri, take a sonnet . . . (or, what if Shakespeare had a speech-to-text app on his quill pen?)

    The poster for the role-reversal romcom Take a Letter, Darling (1942) shows advertising executive Rosalind Russell dictating a letter to her secretary, Fred MacMurray.
    The poster for the role-reversal romcom Take a Letter, Darling (1942) shows advertising executive Rosalind Russell dictating a letter to her secretary, Fred MacMurray.

    Our lives have become so suffused with digital devices that it’s hard to imagine what things were like before. Watching a character in a dark alley in an old movie, I want to shout at the screen, “Use your cell phone, call for help!” Why don’t they ever listen?

    Fortunately, what we can do is time-travel back to the past to rewrite these old stories in light of new technologies. Here, for example, is an excerpt from DeeDee Baldwin’s version of Pride and Prejudice as told through Facebook updates 

    Pride and Prejudice as FB updates

    Then there’s Matt Richtel’s take on Romeo and Juliet and texting

    Juliet: Fakn death. C U Latr.

    Romeo: gud plan.

    So I’ve been thinking, what if Shakespeare had autocorrect on his quill pen? What if Wordsworth used speech-to-text instead of dictating his poems to his sister? These new technologies aren’t perfect. You say one thing, Siri types another. Writers spoiled by auto-correct and spell-check are too impatient to proofread anything, so all sorts of funny, embarrassing, or disastrous messages are getting sent.  

    But if these flawed but irresistible technologies had come along a few centuries ago, would Hamlet be soliloquizing, “Doobie or not doobie”? After all, the guy really needed to chill. Would Wordsworth have come across that host of golden daffodils as he wandered “lonely as a clown” o'er vales and hills?

    Patrick Stewart updates Hamlet's soliloquy for Sesame Street

    Above: Patrick Stewart performs Hamlet’s soliloquy, “Letter B,” on Sesame Street. Below: Bozo the Clown solves the Riddle of the Sphinx as he wanders, lonely as clown, on his trip around the world (one of the less-offensive images from Bozo and His Rocket Ship [Capitol Records, 1946], a copy of which I owned, and memorized, as a child).

     Bozo the Clown solves the Riddle of the Sphinx

    If the blind John Milton used text-to-speech for the epic Paradise Lost, we might be reading about “seitan chain’d on the burning lake” after the Fall, not Satan, and we'd be studying the seventeenth-century vegan poets, not the metaphysicals. And if William Blake, who illustrated his poems with etchings, had access to emoticons, his most famous poem, “Tyger, tyger burning bright,” might have wound up short enough to tweet. And Gulliver never gets back to England because Jonathan Swift upgraded to Apple Maps.

    Blake's illustration for

    Above: The Tyger, from Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), plate 42. Only part of the 24-line poem appears in this etching, although in other editions Blake inserted the whole poem in the illustration. Below: the full text of “The Tyger” if Blake had used emoji.

    Tyger, Tyger as an emoticon 

    Back to the present, the keyboard may soon be ancient history. With speech-to-text on our all our digital devices, more and more writers are giving up typing in favor of the long-lost art of dictation.

    Homer composed the Iliad and Odyssey out loud because in his day, that was the only way to create a poem, a story, or a memo (yes, a memo: there was plenty of business to be done in the days before writing, along with the occasional song to sing). But with voice recognition we’ve come full circle, and it won’t be long before today's writers throw away their quill pen apps, and “Siri, take a letter,” becomes “Siri, take a sonnet.” 


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