Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

Newspapers: do they have a point any more?

January 15, 2018

Today my newspaper of choice, which I’ve read daily for nearly half a century – The Guardian – became a tabloid. It looks okay, but no longer has anything which makes it stand out from any of the other dailies. The short-lived bold Berliner experiment ran out of steam and money: no-one could have foreseen how rapidly so many people would give up print for online news… and I found myself thinking: is there any real point to newspapers any more?

Once, newspapers were the only news; first radio and then TV scooped them. And now the internet offers instant updates. Once newspapers offered news; now they try to offer everything: a whole range of features, opinion, columnists trying to be funny, cookery, lifestyle, advice on relationships. Once newspapers had relatively few pages and were readable on the day of publication in a reasonable space of time; now there are pages to plough through. Once the Sunday paper was a treat to gorge on.

I only occasionally buy a print Guardian at a weekend, and when I do, it’s frustrating, because I’ve read half of it before, at different times during the week: online articles aren’t attached to particular days, and the overall effect is to make it even less likely I’ll bother with print. And I suspect I only look at about a quarter of what appears online, anyway.

I could never have imagined life without my daily dose of print, and yet, here I am, reading the paper online every morning – no more cold and wet trips to the corner newsagent. It comes rather cheaper, of course, and this is an issue for all newspapers: where’s the money? The Guardian seems, slowly, to be finding its way with a subscription and donation model, helped by the web broadening its world readership. And I grind my teeth about the random and irrelevant US and Australian stories. But they get some cash from me because I love the online crossword app.

The Times disappeared behind a paywall, but I won’t give money to Murdoch on principle, end of story. The Daily Telegraph, which I used regularly to look at to see what the enemy was up to, has developed a ‘premium’ (ie give us money) label for an ever-increasing number of its stories, and this has led to a bastardisation of good journalism, in that most stories now begin with a couple of paragraphs of knitted words that tell you nothing, in order to tempt you to stump up money to read the real article just as it disappears behind the paywall… ha ha, fooling no-one there… On the other hand, I do have access to far more titles, whereas I only ever bought one print newspaper a day.

As I grow older I regularly have to remind myself that I’m not the regular or average punter that most newspapers (or shops, for that matter) actually want; I’m on the margins, looking for something that doesn’t really exist. When I began reading newspapers, I wanted (and found) the news reported clearly, fully and intelligently, and some detailed and thoughtful analysis to develop my understanding of issues. That’s pretty rare now, particularly the analysis, for which I’ve gone to a French publication, Le Monde Diplomatique (there is an English edition) for the last twenty years. English newspapers are full of rent-a-scribe columnists paid by the yard to pontificate, to provoke or to try and be funny, none of which is terribly useful in terms of trying to understand an increasingly mad world.

I can’t see print newspapers existing for much longer; I can see them shrinking to weekly publications focused on analysis rather than news, although I suspect the ‘infotainment’ angle will still dominate. There will be far fewer of them. Someone will eventually sort out how to make micropayments work, I hope.

The thing that depresses me more than anything is the large number of people I see picking up and paying for the Daily Mail, imagining they are buying a proper newspaper, rather than a nasty, right-wing propaganda-sheet. It says something about the very sad state of this country at the moment.

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Who controls my brain?

January 1, 2018

I’ve been wondering whether the ways I read have changed with the advent of the internet, and reading onscreen and online. I’ve always been a fast reader, and able to speed-read when I need to; I followed a speed-reading course while I was at school at the urging of a teacher, and have never regretted it; it meant that as a student I was able quickly to scan and if necessary skim-read large amounts of text and pinpoint and extract what I needed for my purposes. This was obviously incredibly helpful when doing research. I’ve also been able to skim-read newspapers and magazines, glancing to see what it was worth spending eye-ball time on.

But I have the feeling that things have changed radically now, because of the ubiquitous hyperlink – the ability to click on a link in an e-text and instantaneously be somewhere else, relevant or not. It’s possible to come back, of course, but we don’t always – or even often do that: what is this particular possibility doing to my reading?

Glancing at a newspaper or magazine in the olden days, one’s eyes could always be caught by a headline: one might be drawn in. And headlines were crafted to attract the reader, but not in the same way as today’s clickbait seeks to entrap, because a click means a possible ad-opportunity and therefore fractions of a penny for someone. Once I’d paid for my old print newspaper, that was it; a good advert might sell me something, but otherwise there was no more money to be made until I bought it again the next day…

Clickbait is like a honey-trap, a bottomless pit if one is not careful; it seems to encourage and develop the butterfly mind to devour small gobbets of text and pictures, and most web-pages are designed with this in mind… reading lengthy articles can actually be quite tricky, and as for saving them for future reference, well. I know there are tools like Pocket, but even these try and ‘recommend’ things an algorithm imagines I might like.

Am I gradually being trained to be increasingly superficial in my reading? I know I can exert control, I can choose what I read, but there’s another issue, it seems to me, as well: information overload. Such an enormous array of information is now at my fingertips, via a search-box. I can find out about anything I like. And, of course, I can be interested in far more things than I used to be, if I choose to… but far more superficially.

Let me illustrate. When I researched science fiction, some thirty-five years or so ago, I had my topic. Initially, I read a scholarly text or two, scanned relevant periodicals in the field, and built a reading list, and then I had physically to visit libraries, hunt down books via catalogues, order them, perhaps consult them in situ; I had to make notes on paper, longhand, painstakingly, and collate them… Did I manage to find and read everything of significance in my field? I don’t think so. Today I could literally swamp myself in material, without ever leaving my study. And would this have done me any good? I don’t think so. It would have taken much longer to wade through all the material; who can say whether I would have discriminated adequately between the dross and the worthwhile? Would I have finished before the research grants ran out?

I produced – in the interaction between my brain and the materials I had access to, a thesis which passed muster. True, with a computer, the typescript might well have had fewer typos in it. But…

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and the access to information about all sorts of things I come across, that I couldn’t have looked up without major effort thirty years ago. So then, I didn’t bother, just got on with my life. Today, I just have a niggling awareness that things may be going on that I’m not completely clear about and not completely happy about, because I think my brain may be being manipulated. Am I paranoid, or what?

2017: my year of reading

December 30, 2017

Time for my annual look back over the year that’s almost over: my big blue book tells me that I’ve managed to acquire 37 more books this year, and that I’ve read 63 thus far. It doesn’t tell me how many I’ve disposed of, however. Both totals are slightly up on the previous year, I note, which shows I haven’t managed to curb my book-buying habits as much as I’d hoped or intended.

A major achievement this year was finally getting to the end of my reading of Montaigne‘s essays, which I had begun a couple of years back, and paused several times. It has been very comforting to share the mind of someone so thoughtful, knowledgeable and humane. In a way, I see him as an inspiration when I write, and strive to pull my scattered thoughts together: someone to look up to, most certainly. Since there are so many essays and I can’t see myself ever re-reading them all, I have carefully noted which were my favourites.

My awards for 2017:

Most disappointing read: Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars. I’d had great hopes of this and the rest of the series, having put it off for quite a few years, but it was a let-down when I eventually got to it, and I can’t see I’ll be bothering with the rest of them.

No award this year for Weirdest Book. I have come across no real weirdness this year.

61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_A necessary distinction in the fiction category: Best New Novel is Philip Pullman‘s La Belle Sauvage, of course, and you can read my review here and see why. I’m hoping that the next book in the series will appear in 2018, since he’s actually finished writing it, and hopefully the final one not too long after that. It’s nice having something to look forward to. The distinction was to allow me to list Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena as a Best Novel, because it was another one I’d held off reading for a long time, and this time was well worth the wait, a brilliant, moving and carefully-crafted historical novel from a writer who I love as a writer of SF.

51hWEeFhq1L._AC_US218_Several books get mentions in the non-fiction category this year. Erika Mann‘s collection of stories When the Lights Go Out is so rooted in the reality of daily life in Germany as the Nazi grip tightened that I’d hesitate to class it as fiction, though it technically is. It’s chilling in its ordinariness, its smallness and yet the inescapability of the evil. Richard Byrd‘s Alone, a travel book, is about his several months alone in winter at an isolated weather station in Antarctica. What was so powerful and mesmerising about it was the way he accidentally gave himself severe carbon monoxide poisoning quite early on in his stay, and his incredible struggle to survive. knowing that the source of heat he depends on for survival, will also kill him.

51BZSRipcpL._AC_US218_But, Book of the Year in any category goes to Svetlana Alexievich‘s stunning The Unwomanly Face of War, truly a masterpiece. It’s gruellingly difficult to read – you need a really strong stomach – and it’s a powerful antidote to any attempts at apologetics for German behaviour in the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who thinks that war is any sort of answer to any of our problems.

Resolutions: I have a lot more history to read this coming year, and I’ve had much pleasure from returning to my old collection of SF, so I hope to continue with some of that, too. And I’ve decided that instead of buying books when I fancy, I will compile a list of books I covet each month and at the end of that month, award myself one from that list. Wish me luck! (By the way, that’s new books only…)

Christmas Books 2017

December 26, 2017

5178JPz9XvL._AC_US218_5190gvBe8QL._AC_US218_I’m trying – with not a great deal of success – to cut down on the number of books I acquire, so I put rather fewer new books on my wish list this year. I also look at said wish list rather infrequently, so the books I received this Christmas, only four, (!) came as very pleasant surprises, and I shall very much look forward to reading them.

For the record, I received Montaigne by Stefan Zweig, Au Pays des Sherpas by Ella Maillart, All Things Made New by Diarmaid MacCulloch, and the wonderful Explorer’s Atlas.

I have long enjoyed Montaigne’s essays, his way of looking at and reflecting on the world, and indeed the way he may be said to have invented and developed that literary form, and although I haven’t thus far enjoyed Zweig’s fiction, I have found his non-fiction thought-provoking. Some of my readers will know of my passion for the travels, writings and photography of Maillart, the Swiss traveller: here is more for me to enjoy. And having used 2017’s being the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation as an excuse to revisit some religious history (see this year’s posts passim), MacCulloch’s recent collection of essays will no doubt shed some more light and raise a few more questions. The Explorer’s Atlas is the nearest I get to coffee-table delights and I’m really looking forward to it.

These should keep me going until the new year, at least…

51EaEVd-aYL._AC_US218_51HCuO3-GhL._AC_US218_

Caveat emptor

November 27, 2017

A post about buying second-hand books, with a bit of a moan…

I’ve been buying second-hand books for years. Sometimes it’s because a book is out of print, sometimes I’ve come across something I didn’t know of in a shop and fancied reading it, and sometimes I go for a cheaper copy because I’m not that sure whether I’ll like something or want to keep it for very long.

There are two ways of buying a used book: from a real shop, and online. In a real shop, you know what you are getting, quality-wise: you can examine the book, its binding, and see whether there are any pen marks or anything else you don’t like about it. You will know if it stinks of ancient cigar-smoke. Some second-hand bookshops are a disgrace, so disordered that they could be tidied up by throwing in a grenade. I tend to leave in frustration. Most are reasonably organised. Most are reasonably priced, too, though occasionally it’s obvious an owner is having a laugh with his prices – think of a figure, then double it kind of thing. Charity shops are another issue: some haven’t a clue about pricing, in which case there are either amazing bargains to be had, or such silly prices for a book that again, you have to leave in frustration.

And then there’s the internet, now a veritable minefield, and where one is most likely to get one’s fingers burned. If what you click on is what you get, in terms of described condition, then that’s fine. Often it’s not. Second-hand shops generally adhere to quite a careful and detailed code for describing the state of a book when they sell online; others do not, particularly sellers on ebay, and on the aggregate websites like amazon, abebooks and the like.

What happens when something isn’t as described? You can take the hit – I don’t. I always complain. Amazon is pretty good and pretty prompt at dealing with issues, even though I have to confess that I don’t like dealing with this behemoth in any of its forms and avoid it as much as possible. You usually get a satisfactory conclusion – a full or partial negotiated refund. Abebooks – part of the amazon empire – isn’t so helpful, as I discovered a couple of years ago when a print-on-demand version of a rare book from India wasn’t as described. They abdicated almost all responsibility, wanted me to return the book first – to India! at my cost! and hope for a successful refund. Ha ha! Lesson learned, and abebooks has lost my business.

Others carp and cavil and try to fob you off with partial refunds, as World of Books did recently. But if a book is of such poor quality that it should never have been put for sale described as in VERY GOOD condition (!) then a partial refund for something you wouldn’t have given any money for if you’d actually seen it, is no consolation. Or, as with a two volume reference set that I could only source from the USA, which turned out, without advertising it, only to be selling volume 1 (!) – what is the point? Money wasted.

So, as I said, I complain. Politely, but moaning in full detail about my disappointment, with copious details of what has fallen short. Because I don’t think people should be allowed to get away with it, and it’s our inertia if we do nothing that encourages them to carry on in that vein. Most of the time, I have had my money refunded in the end. And the book, if useless to me , goes to a charity shop.

Whatever is for sale, it’s a jungle out there. I love the fact that I can find out about books I never knew existed, and can source them from all corners of the globe. As a book-lover, I wouldn’t be without it. I will pay good money for good books I’ve been searching for. But I will call out those sellers who think they can fob us off with rubbish, with books not as described, with stuff that belongs in a skip.

Normal service will be resumed in my next post…

Nothing new under the sun…

November 20, 2017

When are our tastes in literature shaped and formed?

I wrote recently about the phenomenon of older men reading less fiction, and the other day found myself discussing with my daughter the fact that I was not really that interested in much of what was being written now, or indeed films that were being released now, whereas in my student days I had been an avid reader of fiction and an avid film-goer. And we got on to thinking about how early on in life our tastes seem to be shaped and formed. It was interesting to find someone of a different generation in broad agreement with me, and I pondered things further…

I first met Sherlock Holmes, in print and on the wireless, at age seven. I’ve liked detective fiction – or a certain range of it – ever since; I’ve written else where in this blog about my enjoyment of Ed McBain, Raymond Chandler, Ellis Peters, Josef Skvorecky and others, too, no doubt.

I also first came across science fiction in my younger years, in the junior section of Stamford Public Library when I found the Lost Planet series, by Angus MacVicar. The premise was bonkers, as I recall, visiting a planet that had an orbit somewhat resembling that of a comet so that eventually it would be unreachable from earth, but the notion that there could be life elsewhere, and reachable from earth, stuck with me. As a student I became aware of science fiction with a political and social message, read lots and ended up researching and writing both an MA dissertation and an MPhil thesis on it. And I still keep an eye on what’s being written now, though I read very little of it.

About ten or fifteen years ago, there was a major shift in my reading habits as I began to explore all kinds of travel writing, and you don’t have to look very far in this blog to see how often I’ve written about it. I though this might be an example of a new direction in my reading, until I recall the voraciousness with which I tracked down and read every single book in the Young Traveller series in the local library. Again, a simple and repetitive premise which appeals to younger readers: a family travels – using some vague and largely irrelevant excuse – to a country, meets and converses with people, experiences local customs and food, visits important tourist attractions, all suitably sanitised for a readership of children.

I’ve always read a lot of fiction from other countries, mainly European, but do cast my net more widely. And I remembered friends at boarding school who pointed me at writers like Sartre and Günter Grass, and realised that here was yet another shaping of my literary tastes. Obviously when at university studying French Literature, my outlook broadened further.

So I have found myself wondering – is there anything I’ve acquired a taste for more recently, as in, since my student days of forty years ago? If there is, when I remember, I’ll let you know. But until then, I’m struck by just how much the tastes and interests of one’s life are laid down at a pretty early stage…

Sherlock Holmes… again

November 16, 2017

I’ve been a Holmes fan for as long as I can remember, and one of my first Christmas book token (remember those, anyone?) purchases as a child was a paperback of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; that, couple with a long-running BBC Radio series at roughly the same time, hooked me for life. And occasionally at Christmas, along comes a book which mines the Holmes canon to make a little money along the way; this is one of them from a few years ago, and a re-read has prompted these thoughts…

I supposed because Sherlock Holmes is now in the public domain, anyone can have a go at putting something together to make a little money: this is one of those books. It draws together snippets and details under various headings, making connections between various stories, but there’s nothing new here, it’s just a re-hash, with some poor illustrations. It’s an American effort, and this shows in places: quite often Americans give themselves away through their lack of understanding of London, Victorian England, English law or British history; when they attempt to write stories in the Holmes vein, their command of our language can be alarmingly inaccurate…

And yet, the edition par excellence of the stories and novels is an American one, the marvellous three-volume edition published by Norton, which I was lucky enough to receive a few Christmases ago – The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie S Klinger. Pretty much everything is clarified in these hefty, beautifully produced tomes. Americans do produce high-quality books.

There are some useful books about Holmes which I’ve come across in my time: I can recommend, for detailed information and context, Christopher Redmond‘s Sherlock Holmes Handbook, and for a wealth of visual detail, Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, compiled by Alex Werner. And while we are on good and useful resources, I can’t speak highly enough of the marvellous Naxos recordings of the entire canon by David Timson; for me the only screen Holmes was Jeremy Brett in the extraordinarily careful and detailed Granada TV productions of some thirty years ago (no Benedict Cumberbatch for me, thank you!). Pastiches? the two novels by Anthony Horowitz are actually very good, with only the themes of the stories and the higher level of violence giving away that they are not from Conan Doyle‘s pen.

In the end, the lasting greatness of the novels and stories of the canon is that they are very much a product of their time – the Victorian era, for which it is easy to be nostalgic because it wasn’t that long ago and so has a certain semi-familiarity, if you like; Arthur Conan Doyle, who tired of, tried to kill off and ultimately had to resurrect his hero; and the magazine culture of the time, too: a new story every month – a bit like the radio series which hooked me as a boy…

On an enigma: older men read less fiction

November 6, 2017

Somewhere, recently, I came across an article based on some research that suggested that older men read less fiction. I glanced at it, aware that nowadays there’s all sorts of ‘research’ into all sorts of things, and a lot of which either does not make sense, or is soon proven to be incorrect or biased… but the notion stayed with me, and got me thinking.

I must be one of those ‘older’ men being referred to. And I don’t tend to read very much fiction any more. In my life, I’ve read lots; on my bookshelves ‘awaiting reading’ there’s quite a bit of fiction that I’ve felt moved to buy, but that I haven’t read yet. Every now and then, in the search for what to read next, I’ll pick up some of these novels, flick through them, remind myself of the blurb on the back cover… and put them back on the shelf, for ‘later’. Not ready to read that yet!

What is going on? Given the choice and the availability, I will read travel writing, or history, or something else factual rather than fiction; if I do read any fiction, it’s quite often a re-read, something I’ve enjoyed previously and decide to go back to. So, recently I re-read (again) Joseph Skvorecky’s The Engineer of Human Souls – and thoroughly enjoyed it again. But when it came to Ismail Kadare’s Spiritus – and Kadare is another of my favourite writers – I was aware of forcing myself to read it at various points. I hadn’t read it before, it had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I did enjoy it in the end. But what?

This feels like a real challenge: what is putting me off reading new – ie previously unread – novels?There’s almost a fear – reader’s block? – of not enjoying a book, of not being able to get into it, of not wanting to meet and engage with new characters and their lives, fictional though they may be. I’m wondering if this may perhaps be because I’ve read so much fiction earlier in my life, lived vicariously so much that now I no longer want to, and in my declining years/ older age want instead to engage with issues and ideas. Is there nothing new under the sun, to quote the sage?

I’ve written before about books that I’ve outgrown, moved on from, books that were significant, powerful, meaningful in my younger days but are no longer so… but books I have yet to read cannot fall into this category. Do I buy books on spec, and then the moment passes? But that’s something I’ve always done. Is it a phase I’m going through, or is it going to be like this from now on – no more new novels?

I’m curious to know if this is a phenomenon shared by any other of my older male readers (though I don’t know how many of them there are!) and would be interested in their thoughts. And then I cheered myself up by remembering how much I’d waited for and enjoyed the new Philip Pullman, and to which I will be going back very soon…

La Belle Sauvage – again…

October 22, 2017

If you think about it, the Dark Materials trilogy is a self-contained work that cannot itself be added to or extended: the events of those novels span multiple universes, made possible by the operations of Lord Asriel, and also by the use of the subtle knife, and when the novels end, the doors between the universes must all be sealed up, and the knife broken, so no further movement between worlds is possible: this is what makes the separation of Will and Lyra at the end of The Amber Spyglass so moving and painful – as well as necessary.

So, any subsequent books, including La Belle Sauvage and whatever the second and third parts of The Book of Dust is to be called, are additions: La Belle Sauvage happens in Lyra’s world, which we all know and love, but does not extend outside of it. The machinations of the Church, and Asriel, and others researching the Rusakov particle, will lead to the fantastic events of the trilogy ten years later, and the ten years after those events, the following books may be set in Will’s or Lyra’s world (or both) I imagine, but without connection between them.

What these limitations leave Philip Pullman with, it seems to me, are his ideas, which for me were always at the heart of the Dark Materials trilogy anyway: questions of innocence and experience, the notion of good and evil, original sin, and the role of God, if there is one.

The world of the Church and the Magisterium is a cruel and Calvinistic one, it seems to me, and its evil has been clarified for me by some of the reading I’ve been doing lately that has been prompted by the 500th anniversary of Luther‘s ninety-five theses and the start of the Reformation. One of the things which came from the Reformation was a stronger emphasis on what can only be called predestination: the idea that, in religious terms, or if one accepts that particular Christian doctrine, most people are born with no hope of salvation, doomed to damnation, and the small (smug?) band of the elect, or the saved, are saved through no effort of their own. Obviously I oversimplify, but it’s a pretty cruel God that some people have invented, and one that my own Catholic upbringing makes me find repellent.

The idea that we must try to build the Republic of Heaven here and now, in the world we are actually living in, is not a new one, though Pullman has made it clear and concrete in a different way in HDM. The choice to rebel against an arbitrary power (God, if you like) was evil, wrong, Satan-prompted, in traditional Christian terms, although even Milton in his epic Paradise Lost cannot help turning Satan into some kind of hero. But Pullman emphasises that the choice to reject control, to assume power oneself, is a positive and liberating one, as well as being the one that makes us fully human; again, it’s this final point that Milton cannot avoid in his poem. So, ultimately, is this choice to be human wrong – a sin – or inevitable, given our free will, and also liberating: this is what we are, and can be?

Free will is the problem, of course, for us humans now: many can and do choose evil, make wrong choices that harm and oppress others. Predestination removes the problem: we don’t have free will if we are predestined to damnation from the moment of birth, with no hope of changing our fate through our own actions, and what follows then is that nothing that happens in this world is of any ultimate significance or consequence at all: the elect get heaven anyway, and everyone else ends up in hell…

Back to Pullman, who nails his colours clearly to the mast in HDM: the Fall was a felix culpa, but not in the traditional Christian sense: the Fall liberates us to be human. Will and Lyra made many choices, considered and with the help and advice of many wise creatures, on their epic journey. Having read and enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, but thought further some of its inevitable limitations, I now realise that it’s the next two books that I’m really waiting for: what did happen next?

Reading and not writing

October 17, 2017

I’m not often brought to a halt by something I read, but this happened as I was reading Diarmaid MacCulloch‘s Reformation, and it was the question of a separation between being able to read and to write that brought me up short, and led to a length discussion with my other half, who, as a retired primary school teacher, was exactly the right person to have at hand…

I’d been familiar with the idea that, until the early Middle Ages, reading had not been a silent activity, that is that a person when reading would vocalise what s/he was reading, either silently or aloud (which of course slows the reading process down considerably), and that it had been a revelation when it was discovered that this vocalisation was not necessary – one could ‘just’ read, as it were, just as we do now… and children, of course, need to learn this, or realise this, or perhaps they just pick it up.

Anyway, to me the processes of reading and writing had always gone hand-in-hand; I’ve never separated the two, particularly as, in my experience, we learn to do them at the same time, in the early years of our schooling. I’d never thought any further about this until I came across the idea that a person might be able to read, but not be able to write, and it took me a long time to make sense of this.

It was carefully explained to me that there are various different ways of teaching children to read, some of which lend themselves to learning to write rather more easily than others. And then, there are a whole range of fine motor skills and also secretarial skills involved in the process of writing, which also have to be learnt, and might not be. And then there is the whole question of sentences.

We do not tend to speak in sentences: a transcript of any conversation will demonstrate this. So the units of meaning necessary to writing also have to be taught and learned. Not only does a child need to learn to write in sentences – something which, from my experience as a teacher, a good many never do with any great competence – they also need to work out how to articulate their ideas into sentences before they attempt to write them down. And this is pretty difficult, as primary teachers will testify.

Once I understood this, I realised how the two processes, which are clearly very different, could have been separate from each other in the past: it’s only current educational systems that have linked them together, for convenience’ sake. And then: what does a person actually need to write? If you are a person of any note or importance and cannot write, you can have someone who will do that for you. People in India still make their living as public scribes for those who cannot write, but may occasionally need something written out for them. Perhaps you only need to write lists, or figures. You may need to make a mark to authenticate a document. But do you have a need to write in sentences? And to learn all that complicated stuff?

Then I found myself thinking about the advent of technology, and the difference it may make or be making to these processes. Gone is the need for pencil control and other fine motor skills when there is a keyboard, either physical or on-screen, to produce perfect, identical letters for you. And I suppose a grammar checker – bane of my life – can help you identify when you haven’t formed a proper sentence. Spellcheckers can allegedly help with correct spelling, although I used to remind students that a spellchecker is only as intelligent as the person using one. But technology can’t frame proper sentences for you: you have to be able to structure and articulate what you want to say first…

I’ve often wondered why there hasn’t been that much progress in ‘speak-write’ technology (even Orwell had it working perfectly in the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-four), and I can see that apart from removing the need for any keyboard skills at all, it will not advance the work of a non-writer any further than we have currently progressed.

And yet, writing skills are disappearing: many students do so much of their work using keyboards that they cannot write an essay longhand any more, and universities are working out how to allow students to complete examination papers using computers. If your smartphone can contain everything that you might ever have needed pen and paper for in the past, where does that leave the future of writing? I don’t know where we will end up in the future, but I do find questions like these absolutely fascinating…

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