Because, as a writer of creative nonfiction, I deal in the business of memory–who remembers, what they remember, how those memories are extrapolated and skewed–I am concerned with artifacts. I’m especially concerned with the tangible ones: lettters to and from lovers, photos of lost relatives, quilts made from scraps of clothing. I have even gone on the occassional fossil hunt. And, as a teacher, I am concerned with literacy–the ability of myself and my students to navigate our way through the lexicon that is the printed letter, to make sense of those images and render them meaning. The districts and states and higher powers-that-be certainly attach signifigance to the ability to manuever through the printed word. One third of the SAT depends upon it; one third of the state exit exam does.

As both a writer and a teacher, I find myself in a strange time. The written word is fading, and from one moment to the next, I’m finding it tough to judge how I will react.

In my personal life, I’m divided. It’s no secret that I spent my afternoons ensconced in the local library, and that in my home I am surrounded by the physical word. They are, in some respects, more real to me than the people who have come and gone from my life–the smell of them, the feel of them an emotional call. When I move, the boxes labeled “books” far outnumber any others, and each one represents something different to me. Above all, they represent my way out of what my small town expected of me, and for that I am grateful beyond words. But as a digital immigrant, it’s the “beyond words” part that’s beginning to bother me. What does it mean that I now spend at least as much time (if not more) reading words that are only representations of binary code, words that are not really words, but in essence numbers? What is that fact doing to literacy?

I’ve been reading A Silent History. While I can’t say enough good things about it, it has led me back to the issue of what it means to read, and where the novel stands in contemporary society. One of the arguments that ALWAYS surfaces with changes in technology is that we are “dumbing down” and losing substance–it was an argument against the novel as a genre when the Romantics kicked around Gothicism, and it’s an argument now, as we work in the digital. That’s a topic for another day. Today is about the letters themselves.

My personal literacy skills and the wiring in my brain have changed. I notice it every day when I surf and dive reading a digital newspaper instead of reading it front to back like I did when I was a filing clerk. I appreciate the serial release pieces I get, and look forward to them every day. I am almost never completely unconnected from words, since I have a laptop, an iPad, and an iPhone, but I am connected to them in a different way.

But I still feel panic when someone says my server is going down for maintainence, and still back-up my hard drive every day. I could not function if my words were lost. And losing words entirely is a completely different issue. Silent History is talking about it with its epidemic, but the academic world is discussing it too. Termed “post literacy,” it’s worth a google. It completely changes the game. What if the printed word is as flexible as the spoken one? What if the lexicon of communication shifts to embrace something else entirely? How do we teach to that? Do we? Or do we continue to hold the party line until it’s too late to change course? What will the new communication be? What will it mean to be literate in the face of it?

Scares the crap out of me, just like it did the Romantics (the disappearing and reforming words in Wordsworth’s The Prelude are no accident), and I don’t have any more answers than they did. But I know this. Terrifying as it is, change can be exciting, too. The ramifications of a project like Silent History are ripples in water–a book that changes as the environment changes the reader, and the reader changes the environment? Based in physical experience as much as words? A tangibility is happening of a completely different kind. This could be the good scary, or it could be the nightmare. I’ll keep you posted…


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