This column in Sunday’s paper lays out a case for Good Writing. It does so with painstaking care and a sober, deliberate pace. Digital writing, it posits, is not necessarily Good Writing, and the torrent of words that arises from the digital maelstrom - along with the tendency towards compression - is bringing us the death of Good Writing.

Oh, poppycock,  to use an archaic term. Codswaddle! Me write good on intertubes. But before I go on, please read the piece. Done? Fine. Now:

There’s a lot more writing around than ever before. Some of it is dreadful. Most of it, as with most writing throughout history, is decent enough for the job. Go back to the start of the last century, read the magazines: the prose makes you feel like you’re gnawing through a block of granite. (The breezy style of Time magazine, derided by purists in its day, shook up the style, and now everyone expects punchy copy.) Much online writing, however, is superb. What works on the page also works on the web if it’s good enough, and presented correctly; dead-tree writers can make the move without sawing off large hunks of their soul in exchange for a brief flicker of digital existence.

The explosion of online writing has also created an entirely new class of writers you never would have known about before - amateurs who shame the pros on a regular basis. Some sites I visit just for the pure beauty of the writing, and no magazine would ever print them. They couldn’t figure out what to do with some pieces. What’s the hook? What’s the angle? How does this fit? Oh, you might find the story in a tiny little literary magazine put out by a small college somewhere - which is to say you’d never find it, ever.

This point is bizarre: 

A friend in publishing in New York told me recently that all the growth in "books" is now in e-books. The rest of the industry, he said, is "unhealthy." And yet I look at a device like the Kindle with horror. Yes, you can read "Moby Dick" on one. But why would you -- unless you were, say, stranded in Logan Airport in Boston late at night and had a sudden urge to read "Moby Dick"? Then, one supposes, it might make sense, if not for the fact that when you went to download "Moby Dick" to your Kindle you would sleepily discover that it is available in that digital format for free. In other words, thanks to electronic publishing, this 656-page classic of literature is now worthless.

 I suppose you could say the same thing about the Bible and the Constitution. The fact that one can get an out-of-copywrite work for free does not make it worthless; it makes it priceless, at least in one sense of the term.

Hammering e-books because you can get a book easily, and for free, can’t be his objective, but he seems opposed to the e-book concept. I understand the appeal of Real Books; I love them too. I’ve written many. But I have longed for a device that can carry many books in its memory, so I can bring along a library on a trip, or a device that had the internet baked into its makeup so I can pause and research if I want. I read a long series of novels set in Rome, and kept putting the book aside to call up wikipedia on my iPhone to check out a detail or definition. Can’t quite imagine an author would object if I found his portrayal of Senacus Portius Minimus so compelling I wanted to see if there was a picture of his bust online. Nor can I imagine an author objecting to a device that let me buy the next book in the series right now instead of waiting until I wandered to Barnes and Nobel, or was sitting in front of a machine that connected to Amazon.


So it can’t be that. Is it this?

The enormous revenues once produced for publishing houses by writers like Stephen King and Tom Clancy used to subsidize the much greater number of less-famous writers whose books don't necessarily make money but which were, once upon a time, worth writing and worth reading.

Yes, that’s so - but those thousands of little books had to pass the gatekeepers of the publishing industry first. We’re not talking about wise old editors on the lookout for the next gem, Maxfield Perkins who could shape the Next Great Talent. First you need an agent; then you have to get past the readers, and if your novel didn’t flip the switch of a 20-something grad from Smith who lived four-in-a-room in a Williamsburg apartment, forget it. Even if you’re published, your book will most likely languish in the tottering stacks in a newspaper’s review-copy storehouse. (I’ve often wondered if most authors would even start their book if they saw the quantities of unread books in our storehouse, or saw the review galleys heaped in the bins.) It won’t get much shelf-space, because the big guns command the display tables. The publishing houses won’t take out ads. You’re on your own.

Now imagine a device that offers first chapters of all new releases, learns what you like, recommends new books, throws in some wild-cards. You’ve just made it possible to reach wide new audiences for pennies, and - here’s the thing - you don’t have to spend a lot of money printing the book. Since you don’t print it, it never goes out of print. Why, someone could even download it 30 years hence while sitting in an airport, bored. Depending on how you strike the deal, your heirs could get a cut.

This is bad? If you’re wedded to the printed page, I suppose it is, but it’s not the end of good writing, anymore than the invention of moveable type was the end of good writing because people had to write very carefully lest they spoil an expensive sheet of vellum. Compared to illuminated manuscripts, after all, Gutenberg’s Bible was an ugly, brash thing.

He ends by calling himself a Luddite:

One hallmark of the literate mind is a rich vocabulary. Smart people look up words. Here's one worth knowing that may have occurred to you if you've read this far: Luddite. The original Luddites were British textile workers in the early 19th century who were opposed to the mechanized loom technology and changing market forces that eliminated their jobs and a way of life. More recently the term is applied to anybody not totally down with new electronic media and all that they imply.

Leave aside for the moment the term “not totally down with,” which I hope is a sarcastic allusion to the bad writing one finds in a pop-culture-sodden medium. I’d love to know if the column was hand-written and mailed, or composed on a computer and sent by e-mail. It’s a well-written essay, and I read it in the print edition. This I wrote on a laptop and posted via a browser, and I hope it repaid your attention. Marshall McLuhan be damned: sometimes it’s not the medium. It’s the message.