Brooks Doherty: Download 'Moby Dick' for free -- and feel free to tweet about it

  • Article by: BROOKS DOHERTY
  • Updated: February 18, 2010 - 7:27 PM

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick" (1956).

Ifolded and dropped my newspaper after reading William Souder's Feb. 14 commentary about the death of formal writing and immediately awoke my sleeping Kindle to confirm if one could really download "Moby Dick" free of charge. ¶ Souder's position that writing is "being devalued and destroyed and steadily replaced by digital writing" is precisely the anachronistic thinking that steers some in our younger generations away from the so-called formal writing found in our newspapers, magazines and Great Books. ¶ Such prescriptionism is as old as language itself, not some misanthropic outgrowth of Twitter. Nonetheless, it creates division between what too quickly is being mislabeled "good" and "bad" writing. Comparing Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" with writing that fits into a 140-character text box is like comparing the film "Lawrence of Arabia" with a YouTube sensation like "David after the Dentist." Both are entertaining; one requires a greater intellectual effort to internalize; both "inform, inspire [and] offend"; neither will alone topple or prop up our civilization.

Today's youths are faced with a much greater challenge in mastering the communication required of them. Souder's generation knew the usual interpersonal communication (face-to-face), the written word and the telephone. Today, we must be proficient in a dozen or more sets of communication etiquettes, including those employed in sundry social-networking sites: the relatively juvenile MySpace, the more mature Facebook, the pithy Twitter and the professional LinkedIn.

This is not to mention the rules regarding e-mail, texting, instant messaging, emoticons and upstart hybrids like Google Buzz, a cross between Google's search technology and microblogging. In short, it's much more difficult to be a proficient communicator this century than it was last. It's not that we've given up. We're just learning.

At Rasmussen College, I see many, but not a dramatic majority, of our incoming students requiring remedial English skills before advancing to college-level composition classes, but modern technology is not to blame. Let us not forget that major colleges and universities, such as the University of Wisconsin, began teaching remedial math and English a generation before the Civil War. Let us also not forget that it is our responsibility to teach all students.

James Turk of Canada's Association of University Teachers recently told the Canadian Press (for an article juxtaposing lower English scores and increased use of social-networking sites among students): "There's a notion of a golden age in the past that students were wonderful, unlike now. I'm not sure that golden age ever existed. ... You can go back and read Plato and see Socrates talking about the allegations that this generation is not as good as previous ones." Socrates was concerned that giving words permanence by etching them onto surfaces would deplete human memory. I wonder if he would have given Shakespeare a hard time for using that newfangled media the kids called "writing."

Yes, one can download "Moby Dick" free of charge through the Amazon Kindle store. Hundreds of thousands of other free books are available, full or partial, through Google Books and I consume as many as I can. One can also borrow or buy hardcopy books ("hardcopy books" is a retronym, according to my favorite, late, language prescriptionist William Safire) at your local library or bookstore. And, while you can get Star Tribune news free online, I opt to keep my subscription. There's something very satisfying in learning from something you hold.

Facebook and Twitter need not kill the English language, but playing divide-and-conquer by pitting one form of human communication against another may accelerate the process. Since, as Souder correctly notes, the "written language is essential to civilization" it is critical that we embrace all forms of writing -- even those we may not have mastered yet -- and allow them to supplement all our minds.

We've proven Socrates wrong: Humans can write and remember at the same time. We are also capable of simultaneously tweeting and following the rules of the Queen's language.


Brooks Doherty, of Crystal, is dean of faculty at Rasmussen College in Brooklyn Park.

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