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Email as literature?

Everyday this week we have been lucky enough to co-post insights with Moreover, from Diane and Michael Ravitch, authors of “The English Reader: What Every Literate Person Needs To Know“. Diane is Professor of Education at the Steinhardt School of Education, New York University. Her books include “The American Reader”, “The Language Police”, “Left Back” and “The Troubled Crusade”. Michael Ravitch is a freelance critic and writer, his work has appeared in the New Republic, Yale Review and other publications.  To see all the posts by the Ravitchs click here.

Is the Internet good for the cause of literature? On first glance, it might seem so. Between internet forums, online diaries in the form of blogs and the constant use of messages and emails, nearly everyone is writing, and reading, certainly more than we did just a few years ago, when the ubiquity of television and the telephone together seemed to be making literacy obsolete.

On the other hand, if literature represents a higher value than just the sheer quantity of words, the Internet might not be such a beacon of hope. Even if great and significant work were being done somewhere on the World Wide Web, who could find it? Now all the words ever written lie at our fingertips, and it sometimes feels as if we suffocate from the excess. An endless succession of screens, summoned forth and dismissed with a veritable snap of the fingers, may not be the best environment for deep contemplation.

However, there is email. Will email be the salvation of the written word?

Letters were once a form of literature. The letters of John Keats and Franz Kafka are small prose masterpieces in their own right. For some, such as the famously frustrated Jane Carlyle, wife of author Thomas Carlyle, their brilliant correspondence turned out to be the only successful expression of their literary talents.

Letters used to be the only option: Letters to cross oceans and cities, letters posted in the morning to arrive in the afternoon, letters in which everyone, whether gifted or not, struggled to be a writer, to find a voice, to articulate their deepest feelings, to engage the challenges of language.

Can the same be said for e-mail today? Will we one day read the collected emails of Toni Morrison or Ian McEwan? It does seem sadly as though email emphasizes efficiency over expansiveness. Perhaps it has to do with the speed of transmission. Letters take days to arrive, and as a consequence, they feel like they should be weightier things, written with forethought and care. Email, however, is instantaneous and its speed discourages any kind of digressiveness. When I used to sit down and write a letter, I felt an obligation to fill the page to the bottom, whereas with email I feel embarrassed if I write too much.

And of course a new compressed language has sprung up for email, including emoticons and those strange abbreviations that are so infectious. LOL. IMHO. These short-cuts are effective at communication, but generic and automatic, shorn of individuality.

In one of her essays, Virginia Woolf quotes a letter from a humble milkmaid  in 1574, a young girl being pursued by an imperious Lord: “The thing you wot of, Milord, were a great trespass towards God, a great offense to the world, a great grief to my friends, a great shame to myself.. Chastity, they say, is, like unto time, which, being once lost, can never be recovered.”

You can still hear it in her words. This young woman enjoys writing, she delights in the sounds of words and the structures of sentences. And although the situation was stressful, she clearly relished the opportunity to show off her poetic skills.

It may be that our world today discourages poetry. But hopefully there will be some who sit down in front of their computers and decide that the emoticons are not enough, who will get caught up in the excitement of expressing themselves and the search for a finer phrase — who will, perhaps in spite of the medium, get fatally entangled with words and forever after be in thrall to their possibility and their challenge.

By Michael Ravitch

Recent Comments

  1. […] After reading Julie Phillips’s James Triptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, I have many conclusions. But the one that sticks out the most (which indeed I still possessed even before picking up the Phillips book): Ursula K. Le Guin, hubba hubba! Yowzahs! Rowr! Considerable correspondence between Sheldon and various science fiction writers can be found within the book. But it is Le Guin’s volleys, laden with wit, intelligence, and an irresistable wordplay, that made me swoon. Letter writing may very well be a dying art — something abdicated to the “dats cool” one-sentence truncations of contemporary email. Because of this, I think it’s high time to remind readers that Le Guin is still around and still pumping out interesting books. It’s also high time to remind all emailers to up their game! (More recent news on the literary merits of email here.) […]

  2. John Cowan

    LOL. IMHO. These short-cuts are effective at communication, but generic and automatic, shorn of individuality.

    And how are they so different from the O.K, P.D.Q., N.G., and V.T.Y. of previous generations, eh?

    This is just another version of the tiresome rant about how the world is going to hell and the children don’t respect the ways of their parents that we’ve been hearing since the Egyptians invented writing five thousand years ago.

  3. Atif zaman

    I like to read English literature

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