March 31, 2011

Young Minds on the Deterioration of the Written Word

I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been grading papers. Student papers. Well, actually, student blogs. They were asked to write a blog on a significant topic in writing and I was shocked by what turned out to be the #1 most popular blog topic: how social media and text messaging are 'destroying' the English language.

There were a lot of impassioned speeches about how 'the youth today' (umm, you're seventeen... you are the youth today... but alright) don't respect the glory of English at all. I even had a student tell me that, if we weren't careful, eventually we'd end up talking to each other in nothing but a series of grunts. A lot of them seem to feel that technology in general - including ebooks - are raping and pillaging worthwhile literature and eviscerating our appreciation and understanding of the written word.

I find myself... confused by this. I'll agree that 'text speak' is finding its way into our everyday language - after all, 'LOL' and 'OMG' have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary - and I'll agree that it can be annoying. But students are still learning 'real' English in school. They're writing 'real' English in classes and speaking it to other people. It is annoying that people don't check the grammatical correctness of their Facebook status updates... but in the end it's just their Facebook status update. I don't think a misplaced apostrophe or a ZOMG mean that English is tumbling downhill.

I find it fascinating (in the way you find a car crash on the side of the highway fascinating) that so many of my students feel we're experiencing not only a decline in English usage, but also in the quality of published books. A lot of them like to site Twilight's popularity as a prime example of how the mighty literary canon has fallen. They like to say things like 'books with the beauty of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice just don't get published anymore'. But the thing is... beautifully written books are being written and published all the time. I just re-read Cold Mountain - it wasn't written all that many years ago - and I challenge anyone to read that book and tell me that masterpieces aren't still being written. Twilight may not be the best written series of all time, but guess what? That doesn't make it trash. It brought millions of non-readers to the written word. That's more people getting interested in language, trying their hand at writing themselves. More people falling in love with storytelling. Because that's part of what makes 'quality' literature, isn't it? The author's ability to tell us a story that sets us on fire, regardless of whether their work is considered 'literary' fiction.

And while we're talking about how technology is ruining us... I find myself blown away by the attitude towards ebooks. Because - well - ebooks are still BOOKS. They are exactly the same as the hardback original, just packaged for a different format. I think that, if anything, ebooks are getting more people to read. Sure, reading on a screen is always going to be a different experience than reading 'in the flesh'. But they can be bought and consumed instantly, and that is appealing to just about everyone. It worries me that we are so stuck in this romantic ideal about reading and writing that we aren't able to be open to the exciting possibilities that technology presents for literature.

In sum, I'm as keen and romantic about hardback books and beautiful prose as anyone. And I think that it is important that kids be taught the basic rules of our language so that, when they play and experiment with it, they are adding something to the evolution of our language (or, at the very least, know that emoticons will never be as powerful as using real words to evoke real emotions). But I'd hate to see us put our hands over our ears and pretend that technology and genre fiction = the end of the good book as we know it.

Rant concluded; back to grading.

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