The magic of Facebook - network connections across time and space - brings back a woman friend from long ago who has decided to retire from journalism. She has been among the better columnists in the US press for more than three decades, writing on everything from sports to Catholicism, politics and social change, emanating first from Sports Illustrated and then the San Francisco Examiner and finally from a small paper in Indiana, where ailing parents led her to finish out her career in the town where she grew up.
Hers has been a voice of staunch feminism and independence, mixing sharp wit with a passion for what she believes is right. She has never been afraid to raise her lone voice or express outrage where others had been pressured into silence or rendered too indifferent to speak up.
Her pronouncement is disturbing.
"I have decided that words are now worth what Deutschmarks were in the Wiemar Republic," she says. "Nothing."
"Nothing. And no one really wants to read, or follow an argument, or listen to reason that does not agree with what they already believe. It's pointless. I think I am really ready to retire, hang it up." She says this with an air of finality I recognize. (And I know that research suggests the blogosphere is making it easier for people only to follow those they already agree with, polarizing camps of opinion and closing more minds than are opened. So maybe she has a point.)
Perhaps, I think, this is like the rationale of someone who has been forced to relinquish a lover and who suddenly discovers faults that were previously obscure. It is much easier to let go of what we no longer value, or devalue what we wish to leave behind.
I brood on this for about 24 hours, thinking: few if any I knew in the business revered words more than she did, or used them better. And why would she now abandon them - for what in their place? Golf? Party planning? Consuming the words of others but generating none of her own?
Words did not (in my humble view) evolve greater subtlety and richer meaning over time to be demeaned now on a pure volume argument.
Certainly it is true that blogs and Facebook and Linked In and other networks have allowed almost any Yahoo (including this one) to write and publish with few constraints. Gone are many of the talented editors and the publications that housed them as the Internet erodes traditional publishing across the land. Coupled with that has been the corporatization of the press, which has reduced the range of available news, homogenized opinion and sapped conviction from public dialogue.
Still, voices can and are being raised across a range previously unthinkable, if you can just figure out how to be found and heard. The one can reach more of the many than ever before in human history, and outside the bounds of traditional publishing authority.
E-book sales increased 176 percent in 2009, romance continued to dominate book sales, but the number of overall titles increased 11.4 percent year to date through June of 2010, from which the book industry took some heart. As Borders goes into bankruptcy and consolidation of book sellers increases, one has to wonder whether a new model may be emerging in which individual writers will reach enormous worldwide audiences without the income being shaved by the middlemen (and women).
And here the demand equation comes into play - can you say things in a way that will attract? Can you (the blogger or writer of any kind) mix substance and style to be a powerful enough signal in all the noise to strike a note that others want and need to hear?
I attempt a rebuttal.
Nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come. (Words)
I have a dream. (Words)
Ask not what your country can do. (Words)
I love you. (Words)
I am sorry. (Words)
What is grass? said the child, fetching it to me with full hands. (Words)
What light from yonder window breaks? Tis the East, and... (Words)
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor... (Words) So I wonder aloud, what is wrong? Do you need a rationale to come to terms with falling silent?
Some might say that speech and words distinguish humans from other creatures, although we have reason to believe that many of them manage to communicate at a high level.
But falling silent because language no longer matters? "Pointless?"