At the risk of sounding like an overly curmudgeonly individual longing for the “good old days” – I know that I am too young to pull off such a rant in earnest (an am hardly one to contribute toward such a debate in the context of such issues as civility and profanity) – I can’t help but find myself despondent over the current state of affairs where writing is concerned. This feeling has been rendered all the more acute as in my health policy research I bask in the prose of Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air and Gawande’s Being Mortal, both in themselves poignant reflections on what makes life meaningful, but also standing out in the language with which these physicians and writers conveyed these messages. Such talent for prose is not as common as one might hope among those in the sciences (or even the social sciences, for that matter) given the emphasis on statistical significance levels, science, and technical writing to the exclusion of eloquent prose. Yet through this powerful mode of communication, they connect with their readers about this important subject matter and render it all too easy to sigh wistfully and wonder why this is seemingly so rare.
When I was a young child, I admittedly was quite advanced where reading was concerned. In elementary and middle school, I was reading Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Jane Eyre, Little Women, Gone with the Wind, the list goes on. Elizabeth Bennett and Jo March were the kindred spirits with whom I spent my summer afternoons. When I was a little older, it was Salinger, Hemingway, Faulkner, Eliot, Borges, Sartre, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Marquez, Baudelaire, and so many more.
A former professor of mine from graduate school advised that if given the choice between being a reader and being a writer, one should be a writer. Setting aside the joy that one can get from reading great writing (admittedly, this was professional and not personal advice toward developing a scholarly career), it is good advice, though with the caveat that reading great writing can inspire one to do the same. Indeed, I find that the greatest antidote to writers’ block is to read writing that inspires me, often in the tone that I most want to emulate. When I seek inspiration to write fiction, I read Faulkner. When I am writing more humorous fiction or creative nonfiction, I read Salinger, or perhaps on a more contemporary note, Carrie Fisher. When I need discipline in academic writing, there is no greater discipliner than Hemingway, whose prose took longer to grow on me than did the writing of Fitzgerald, but who over time has held up better as far more modern.
My favorite poet, T.S. Eliot, said famously, “Immature writers imitate. Mature writers steal.” But stealing must be from a good source. Whether intentionally or not, we are often influenced by that which we read. It is unclear to me the most prominent culprit or combination of culprits: whether it is that schools have stopped assigning to students as many of the great writers whom we studied previously (I do not believe that this is the case), whether the average quality of writing in previous generations was not lower than the present but that which has survived is simply the upper tail of the distribution and thus is an unrepresentative sample against which we judge the present (potentially true, though some evidence supports a decline in quality over the course of the last few years and an entire Tumblr page is dedicated to the tortured writing submitted to teachers along with the students' mangled history accounts (e.g., an apparent belief that Martin Luther freed the slaves with his "I Have a Dream" speech)), whether the 24/7 nature of media and entertainment has reduced the quality of what people read outside of the classroom, whether it is that we have stopped teaching people how to write well in school, or whether the use of social media has induced an excessive casualness to writing that has reduced its overall quality. It is clear that people read fewer books now than in years previous, with an all-time high of 23% of Americans not having read a book in the last year in 2014, compared with just 8% in 1978 (though this trend is not unique to Americans, as a fifth of adults in the UK reportedly do not know who wrote "Hamlet", while a third did not know who wrote Great Expectations). People become all-too-accustomed to finding shortcuts to communicating ideas – u instead of you, thx instead of thanks, r instead of are, and the like – and forget how to take the traditional let alone the scenic routes of written communication.
To be sure, as a former New Yorker (and still, a New Yorker at heart even when walking the streets of Saint Louis), I succumb to the walking equivalent of the modal American’s attitude toward writing. I speed walk even if I am not in a hurry. I rush those in front of me regardless of whether I have two minutes or two hours to arrive at my intended destination. I take shortcuts unless the walk is for the purpose of exercise (which I usually do at the gym, where I find my exercise regimen more efficient). I know that within this domain, just as others view writing through the domain of the internet, I value efficiency over the quality of experience (though to be sure I still enjoy a more leisurely jog through Riverside Park, the Hudson River and the land of my favorite musician off to the right and trees and relatively sparse populations of tourists to my left as my feet beat against the pavement for a few miles.
In an era of expecting instant rewards, not to mention experiencing constant distractions with technology, expecting one to curl up with Anna Karenina (let alone finish it) has become a lot to ask of an individual. I am by no means advocating any reduction in technology for the sake of living a la Thoreau for a time. Take away my iPhone, and my anxiety goes from a level 3 to a level 8 instantly from that single treatment effect. We read synopses instead of the real thing. We cut to the chase. We compress messages to the virtual universe into text messages or 140 (often grammatically incorrect) characters, despite the fact that at least 30% of adult Twitter users have a college degree or higher (as do 74% of Facebook users). “Text speak” has become so common that a list of hundreds of such expressions has been accumulated, including such phrases as 2G2BT (“too good to be true”), 4e (“forever”), gn8 (“goodnight”), w8 (“wait), and the like. It has apparently become a norm well beyond Tigger’s “TTFN – ta ta for now”). And yet there is such simplicity in the pleasure of curling up with a blanket and a book (and in my case, a cat) and losing oneself in the Hemingway’s Paris or Leopold Bloom’s interior monologue, a simplicity that today seems to be all too lost. What’s more, writing – or more specifically, good writing – can do so much good in the way of raising human consciousness to important issues as a number of prominent physicians have done on issues of health, medicine, and bioethics.
Harold Bloom’s unapologetic advocacy in favor of the “great books” is something to which I am sympathetic in an era of greater valuing of those degrees that are lucrative or more likely to pave the way toward lucrative professions, not to mention a depressing decline if not death of quality journalism. (As someone whose second major very nearly was Classics with a minor in English Literature, I was not at the age of twenty a shining example of following the path of practicality). It is not simply because of my desire for my students to get my references, though that of course would be nice (though to their credit, they consistently do get my Sorkin references). It is not simply because I appreciate reading their extra rhetorical flourish, though to be sure I do. And I do not have evidence to support that the decline in students’ and others’ writing is a reflection on not being exposed to the “right” people to emulate or if it is merely a reflection on our declining premium that we place on writing (while we do need to invest in better education, my strong suspicion is that it is the latter scenario, as the works of Austen and Hemingway will forever be in print and available for public consumption). There must also be a will to adapt, or in this case more aptly, to revert. It is out of my optimism, my hope that in becoming reacquainted with the greats (and recognizing them as such), we might renew our attention to the seemingly lost art of what it means to be both great writers (whether fiction or nonfiction), and more broadly great communicators.