Editorial – Reading and Writing
Readers of the comic Calvin and Hobbes will perhaps be familiar with the strip where Calvin is seen lugging around a huge block. When Hobbes asks him what it is, he claims it is an invention of his. A writer’s block. When placed on a desk, writing there becomes impossible. Mindful of the fact that there will be people who may not have read the strip I’m referring to, I take the precaution of not revealing the punch line. The strip can be found at http://cdn.svcs.c2.uclick.com/c2/de163e8c250c102d94d7001438c0f03b. Every time I come across that strip, I cannot help wishing the reverse were true. That just removing an actual, physical, tangible block from a desk would automatically let the words flow. Reading, mercifully, is free of all blocks, isn’t it? Nothing should be easier than just curling up with something to read and reading it from cover to cover, is it not? Perhaps, today, the answer is not yes.
An editorial by Prof. Balaram in the journal Current Science (2011, 101, 133) asks whether it is possible that the internet, Google in particular, is declining our cognitive abilities. The article cites a study which indicates that people secure in the knowledge that they have ready access to sources of information (such as, for example, on the internet) were less likely to remember information, preferring instead to store an index to that information, viz a possible source of that information. Today, one doesn’t even have to go far to access the internet. The prevalence of tabs and smartphones has brought the internet closer to us. We have information at our fingertips, literally. Has this changed us? Reduced our memory and attention spans? Thus making it harder than it was before to read long books or articles? We, who are getting more and more acclimatized to reading short messages, headlines and bullet points from the internet, when faced with a long article, are we taking to just skimming the surface and not reading in depth? And find our attention wandering when we try to read something which is even moderately long? Disturbing though it is, it may well be true.
We must not forget this ready access to information does give us a lot of advantages. To take a small example, before the advent of the internet and online publication of journals, the literature survey undertaken by students embarking on their research careers bore a resemblance to archeological surveys. Information had to be excavated or dug out. Trips to the library, often to those located in other institutions if the student’s parent institution did not boast of access to many journals. Searching through musty bound volumes of archived journals. Having to physically read through an article that seemed relevant to actually determine if it was indeed relevant. Looking for referenced articles meant another trip down the corridors of the library. Storing information for later use was done by jotting down, or photocopying sections of the article.
Readers of this newsletter who have done all this will surely agree that today, we students have it easy. Articles are available at the click of a button, eliminating the need to go anywhere. Articles are published online, sometimes ahead of their being published in print format. So there is no waiting time involved to access the latest findings. A simple Ctrl+F helps determine whether the article pertains to what we are looking for, reducing the time to zero down on relevant articles. Related references are now hyperlinked to the original article. And lastly, if an article looks promising, bookmarking it, saving it to the computer or printing it out can be done almost instantly. Life has indeed become very easy.
But maybe this ease-of-access is really our undoing. After all, as they say, it is easy come, easy go. When searching, retrieving and storing information becomes so easy, the information loses its value. How many times do we actually go back and read in full, an article that was earmarked by us for later reading? In fact, even when reading an article for the first time, we are more likely to skim through the article knowing that we can always get back to reading it later.
While reading the editorial by Prof. Balaram, I couldn’t help wondering… Can the internet and other ‘modern’ forms of communication have also affected the way we write? Communicating through social networking sites and blogs, instant messaging and SMSes. Rapid forms of communication, all of them. Where grammar gives way to brevity, emoticons (smileys) are used in lieu of words to express emotions and feelings and spelling is thrown out of the window. ‘Fine’ becomes ‘f9’, ‘late’ becomes ‘l8’, and so on. An untrained recipient of messages filled with such cryptic abbreviations or someone who is a stickler for grammar is quite likely to pull out his/her hair in frustration or try to find a cryptologist to decode such cryptic messages. Can all of this have begun to affect the way we write? Making reaching for words and remembering how to spell or punctuate more difficult than before? Maybe. Maybe not.
I personally believe there is some effect. I for one, have had to resist the impulse of putting in an emoticon at many points in this piece, and search for appropriate words instead. Yes, at times, having to take Google’s help as well. Something which I do not recall having done earlier. Ever.
The authors of today too churn out works that seem to reflect this change. The language used is drab and conventional at best. With sketchy descriptions of scenes and characters. No longer do we find authors who devote pages to creating an atmosphere, who take pains to describe characters in such detail that one can almost see them. No one makes us laugh as much or uses English in as inventive a fashion as Wodehouse (okay, I admit perhaps that is too big a yardstick to measure against). No author leaves us in knots trying to figure out whodunit the way Agatha Christie did, making us suspect practically everyone; or take us on flights of fancy and on fantastic and futuristic journeys the way J. R. R. Tolkien or Jules Verne did. Instead, today, we have writers (especially in India) who take pride in writing books employing what I can only call ‘bad English’ and are callous enough to defend that by saying they (okay, I’ll be specific. I’m quoting one author here, so he) he is writing for the masses who cannot speak better. To me, such a justification is an even greater crime than just writing poorly, because it indicates writing bad deliberately, and displaying an apathy towards improving.
While I take the liberty to state all this, I feel compelled to add that I am very selective as a reader. I stick to a narrow band of authors and genres, and have read extensively in them. So my views on this matter may very well be opinionated and biased. I wouldn’t mind expanding my literary repertoire and if my views on authors old and new are in any way wrong, I look forward to being corrected. So do write to us (to email@example.com) telling us your views and opinions on books, authors, or anything under the sun, actually. Or you might prefer commenting on our site (www.iisc.ernet.in/voices).
While on the topic of books and authors, I know a sizable fraction of our readers, both on campus and off it, reads. And reads a lot. To them, I ask. What have you read lately? Have you read a book and can’t wait to talk about it? Review it so that others know whether to invest their time reading it? Well, if the answer is a yes, we, at Voices have some good news for you. We received a wonderful suggestion from one of our readers which we’re implementing from this month. A new monthly feature titled ‘On My Bookshelf’ which will feature book reviews that you send us (some, we might just write ourselves, if the temptation to raise our voice and let ourselves be heard becomes too compelling).
So keep reading. And keep writing (in)!
K. Vijayanth Reddy (ECE/CeNSE)