Taming Literacy in This Age

Is the novel dead?

Why do the remaining book readers today prefer nonfiction to fiction?

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When I had been working as an engineer for some 6-7 years, the Chief Structural Engineer called me in and said, “Bob, I need you to write a letter for me.” What he meant was a scolding letter to a local legislator and one of his constituency. I did that and eventually made my bones in the organization by writing for highly-placed engineers.

It’s never been a secret that technical types are weak on the written word. My question in the early years of my career wasn’t “Why is that so?” Rather, it was, “How is it that I paid attention in grammar and literature classes when other future engineers and scientists didn’t?”

I don’t think I know the complete answer to that. Just a proclivity that eventually led me to be a writer, I suppose.

But what’s afoot here is something called post-literacy. Just as the invention of the printing press made possible literacy, i.e., the ability to read with comprehension and the parallel ability to articulate one’s thoughts by writing in a given language. Thought and social functioning became funneled largely through books, newspapers, and letters.

We now realize that something was lost in moving from the pre-literate age, when society functioned, inspired by oral story-telling, dance, music, poetic history, and the oral handing down of skills such as weaving, blacksmithing, and farming. The printed word and the skills of reading and writing did much to build the modern society, but that society lost much of its passion to the written word’s abstract expressiveness.

Those engineers that I wrote for realized something I didn’t: that the technical professions functioned ably with numerical language, relegating the written word to a support role handled by those who persisted in a fascination with expressing thought and imagination through writing.

So to cut to the chase, is the novel dead? Maybe. Cinema has largely supplanted it, and the novel has even copied cinema in some respects.

Why history and other nonfiction? Imagination is now expressing itself through technological gadgets and social media; those who prefer a longer view lean to more linear examinations of the world we live in.

But all’s never completely lost. We’re now in an age in which intuition  is slowly gaining a foothold over reason, and the devices of pre-modernism are returning: theater, music, poetry, and –yes –perhaps the novel will now grow new legs.

 

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Can You Diagram A Sentence?

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Some years ago, during a writing workshop class I attended, a young student offered up a sentence in her classroom segment for the day that had us all frowning with perplexity. The professor stopped her and asked the rest of us how we might write the sentence in a way that could be more easily understood.
“Maybe diagramming the sentence would help,” offered an older classmate.

A bewildered look overcame the young student. “What’s diagramming a sentence mean?” she asked.

Someone offered to bring her an  old textbook, and we moved on.

I hadn’t realized during my high school years that diagramming would prove valuable when I became a fully fledged writer. Nor did I realize during the time of this college class that diagramming was no longer taught. Diagramming won’t help much if you persist in warped and wacky syntax, and most of us speak in just that way, because at the point of speaking we haven’t thought the sentence through. Take for example the following garbled sentence:

The responsibilities sometimes of a beekeeper can be heavy, but the rewards are too great to list for raising bees.

What exactly was the writer trying to convey? That the beekeeper sometimes has such responsibilities and sometimes not? That the second clause changes the topic, conveying that bees having baby bees is very rewarding?

This sentence isn’t outright laughable, because it’s easy enough to parse meaning here. But it is ambiguous and could be written better.

To diagram the sentence, strip away the modifiers and stick for a moment with the first clause’s subject (noun), predicate (verb), and direct object (word that directly bears on the subject), predicate noun or predicate object (word that directly bears on the verb). Diagram the second clause in the same way. Then begin tacking on the modifiers. The lesson here is really where the adjective and adverb modifiers should be placed to cut out ambiguity. The more you scratch your head over such placement the more you’ll realize that these modifiers should generally be placed close to the words they modify.

So the sentence makes more sense if changed – by the following diagram – to read:

The responsibilities of a beekeeper can be heavy sometimes, but the rewards of raising bees are too great to list.

 

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Okay, now it’s your turn. See if you understand how the following, more complex sentence can be better written. Its diagram follows.

The responsibilities, can be heavy sometimes of a beekeeper, which are too numerous to list.

 

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The Oxford Comma and Other Punctuation Discontents

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If you don’t believe language is malleable, go back to original publications of the U.S.’s Civil War era and notice the differences in diction from then to now, the spellings, capitalization practices, and of course, punctuation. Slip back in time to the era of the French Revolution, find a really old copy of Victor Hugo’s work,  Les Miserables, and you’ll find in the work’s latter chapters where this malleability comes from.

But let’s talk punctuation here:

It was in the nineteenth century that the possessive of it contained an apostrophe, i.e., it’s, and sometime early in the twentieth the apostrophe slowly disappeared from standard usage. Still, it’s was taught as late as mid twentieth century. Even today, when the only accepted use of an apostrophe with it is a contracted it is, I still see it in informal letters and (gasp!) on the Internet.

Some things, like it’s, stubbornly remain in informal usage, while others such as the possessive of nouns ending in s are downright schizophrenic. I, for instance, refuse to knuckle under to today’s common usage of the possessive of such nouns as s’s. When I see a possessive of nouns ending in a double s (ss) as ss’s, it looks for all the world like a typist went to sleep with middle finger on the s key. So I stick, for the most part to s’.

And then there’s the Oxford comma.

I was taught to use it, but I didn’t know why, and when it began slipping from standard usage I stubbornly stuck with it. To compound matters, when I first heard of it, I thought it was a Southern thing, originating in Oxford, Mississippi. Not so. It had its early usage at Oxford University in England. Most of what you’ll care to know about its beginnings and evolution you’ll find here. It almost disappeared from use, and then reared its squiggly head in the aftermath of a lawsuit in Maine. It’s undeniable that it provides more clarity, and it seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

There are other squirrelly punctuation usages, but these are the ones that get my hackles up. So let’s resolve here: standard usage is subject to problems and, well, to time itself, so let’s use what makes the most sense in our writing.

 

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Audioboooks and the Return of Storytelling

 

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After reading this, I have to wonder what the future narrative of literature might entail. Two possibilities occur:

  • In dwelling more on story than the language of story, will we be seeing a more right-brain approach to literature; i.e., a more sensory, less intellectual experience for “readers”?
  • Will education become a trait of the more affluent, the ones with the more opportunity? And will their education-induced wisdom be passed on in an oral way to the less opportunity endowed, the less literate, in story form?

Your comments, readers and writers?

NY Times

 

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The Joy of Teaching Computer Science in the Age of Facebook

Technical education, i.e., computer science, can be handled in a way that buttresses education or in ways that waste educational time. If you’re a parent – or an oldie trying to keep up education-wise, you may find the article linked below of interest.

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The Atlantic

 

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The Little Marketer

Something tells me that I’m really getting serious about making it as a writer.

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I mutter imprecations at about this time each morning – I’m not getting any writing done. So what am I doing? Marketing. Making connections. Lining up book cover blurbs for my soon-to-be-released e-book, “We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile.” Checking sales on the various sites. Trying to figure out how I can increase my audience in other ways.

Some writers are good at this phase of the biz – better at it than the writing itself. Me? I’d rather lose myself in fiction’s alternate worlds. But real life is lived in this one, and I’m going to have to prove that besides being a good writer, I’m going to have to be an equally good marketer.

 

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