A society that doesn’t honor words is a society that is short on serious thought. This is one of the messages we take away from an insightful and moving piece in the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books (July 15, 2010). Titled simply “Words” it is about the devaluation of words and verbal expression in the era of Facebook, Twitter and text messaging. “Pithy allusion substitutes for exposition,” writes the author, Tony Judt. Professor of European Studies at New York University and Director of NYU’s Erich Maria Remarque Institute, Judt’s most recent book is ILL FARES THE LAND, published in March.
What is wrong with pithy allusion? It is short, so it leaves a lot out. What is left doesn’t really express much. It is also imprecise, open to interpretation. What is really being said, what thought expressed? When words can be seen to mean many different things, Judt says, “the outcome is anarchy.” He adds, “When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.”
Serious writers understand this. The struggle to put a thought into writing can sometimes make us question the validity of the thought. When the words are getting away from us, doing what seems to be their own thing, we often ask ourselves, “What exactly are you trying to say here?” This is a good question, not only because it helps clarify our writing, but because it also forces us to be clear about our underlying thinking.
Judt is in a particular position to understand the value of words and to despair over those who treat them cavalierly. He has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)—better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a degenerative neuromuscular disorder, and Judt is losing his ability to communicate with either written or spoken words. “Translating being into thought, thought into words, and words into communication will soon be beyond me,” he reports. Can there be a worse fate for a writer and teacher?
Judt has no choice in the matter. There is no cure for ALS. But the rest of us, with our abilities in tact, can certainly think about how we use and value words. Judt concludes with a cry from the heart, “If words fall into disrepair what will substitute? They are all we have.”
The full article can be read at: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2010/jun/17/words/