Could We Actually Be Living in A Golden Age of Literacy?

Once not so long ago, it was understood among those who thought about such things that writing was a dying art form, a relic from an era when things like time, opportunity, and audiences were available and things like authority, expertise, and artistry mattered. Scholars and critics and other old sticks in the mud mourned the death of the written (and read) word in American culture like other old sticks in the mud in other times mourned the death of gas-powered lamps or the art of conversation or the silent movie. Writers no less important than Philip Roth, who felt his influence waning along with everyone else who made a living behind a typewriter, once told David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker - another relic with waning influence - that the evidence "is everywhere that the literary era has come to an end." And stodgy pundits and cultural critics like John Humphrys and John Sutherland attacked texting as "bleak, bald, sad shorthand which masks dyslexia, poor spelling and mental laziness" and texters as the linguistic heirs to Genghis Khan.

This was the sad reality of the situation. But as disheartening as circumstances were for these defenders of the word, at the very least they all knew that their point about the less-than-slow death of written language was indisputable, that they were unheeded prophets in a decadent age. And they found comfort in their sanctimony.

But then Clive Thompson - a writer himself - came along with a shocking bit of news: It turns out, according to a study by Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, that college students' writing isn't getting worse as a result of all that texting, tweeting, and Facebook-updating; it's getting better. According to Thompson, "[f]or Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it--and pushing our literacy in bold new directions."

Just look at all the writing these "young people" are doing, Lunsford argued: more than any generation before. "That's because so much socializing takes place online," Thompson wrote, "and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom--life writing, as Lunsford calls it." Like the fella said, you add 140 to 140 to 140 to 140 and pretty soon all those numbers start adding up to something.

Turns out these kids weren't putting the written word to bed with all their grammatically indifferent updates about the emotional state of their goldfish or their preference for pizza over hot dogs as it relates to an upcoming lunch break; rather, they were rivaling the ancient Greeks with their mastery of the rhetorical art of kairos - "assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across" - and creating a new golden age of literacy in the process. Sure, it seemed to many that they were squeezing all the life-blood out of the language - leaving trifles like beauty, subtlety, ambiguity, and syntax dying on the floor in the name of quasi-confessional narcissism - but actually they were mastering a new kind of prose, one based on "haiku-like concision" that was designed with its audience (of one or millions) in mind. In interviews, this new generation of Bashos declared that the best prose was the prose that had the greatest effect on the world, whether that effect meant convincing a friend to see this movie rather than that or letting the world know that, indeed, you are bored at work and, yes, you are looking forward to the weekend, and, quite right, you plan on spending the weekend making tiramisu.

And with that all the grumbling stopped. Suddenly the Roths and the Remnicks and the Humphrys and the Sutherlands of the world were satisfied. They too picked up their iPhones and started grousing about the weather and Brad Pitt's new hair-do to their friends all over the world. All of a sudden, they ceased to see the point in flaying themselves for months, even years, at a time, in some garret somewhere, trying to map some hidden corner of the human tragedy, when they could let the world know what they were feeling right then and there and still have time to make it home to watch the season finale of Mad Men. They came to the realization that we aren't living in an artistic age but an age of access, where aesthetic notions like "good" and "bad" and "beautiful" and "meaningful" seem almost comically geriatric and the only thing that matters is availability. They realized, like the Catholics did thousands of years ago, that confession is good for the soul, and so they traded their lonely writer's rooms for the warmth and comfort of the modern electronic confessional booth that is the Internet, and they were happier for it. And the written word lived to fight another day.