Monday, September 21, 2009

Fascinating new book on history of writing implements and technology's impact on how we write today

I bet you didn't know that pencils, like computers, where originally invented for purposes other than writing.  Did you also know that almost every new writing technology - from the first printing press to typewriters - was initially met with skepticism and fear?  If, like me, you knew neither, then you may want to get Professor Dennis Baron's fascinating new book called  A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution (Oxford U. Press).  In it, Professor Baron traces the history of "writing implements, communication technologies, and explores the digital revolution's impact on how we write, how we learn, and how we connect with one another."

Here's an excerpt from the publisher's abstract:

A Better Pencilputs our complex, still-evolving hate-love relationship with computers and the internet into perspective, describing how the digital revolution influences our reading and writing practices, and how the latest technologies differ from what came before. The book explores our use of computers as writing tools in light of the history of communication technology, a history of how we love, fear, and actually use our writing technologies--not just computers, but also typewriters, pencils, and clay tablets. Dennis Baron shows that virtually all writing implements--and even writing itself--were greeted at first with anxiety and outrage: the printing press disrupted the "almost spiritual connection" between the writer and the page; the typewriter was "impersonal and noisy" and would "destroy the art of handwriting." Both pencils and computers were created for tasks that had nothing to do with writing. Pencils, crafted by woodworkers for marking up their boards, were quickly repurposed by writers and artists. The computer crunched numbers, not words, until writers saw it as the next writing machine. Baron also explores the new genres that the computer has launched: email, the instant message, the web page, the blog, social-networking pages like MySpace and Facebook, and communally-generated texts like Wikipedia and the Urban Dictionary, not to mention YouTube.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed is also this week featuring an interview with Professor Baron that you can read in full here.  In the meantime, here's a little taste:

Q:  You are deeply skeptical of claims that new communication technologies such as e-mail and text-messaging will do any lasting damage to the English language. Have you noticed any change -- for better or worse -- in your students' communicative styles and abilities as a result of such technologies?

A:  Are students using the acronyms and emoticons we associate with txting in their academic work? No. In fact, they’re not even using them in their texts and IMs. By the time they get to college, most students -- certainly the English majors -- have put away such childish things, and many of them had already abandoned such signs of middle-school immaturity in high school. It’s kid stuff, plain and simple, and they’re mightily embarrassed when their parents send them texts beginning “wassup?” and signed “luv u.”

More to the point, though, writers learn to adapt their style to the demands of their audience and the conventions of the genre in which they’re writing. Some do it more successfully, or more quickly, but just as we speak differently to different audiences, we write differently too.

I am the scholarship dude.


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