I am currently reading Possession by A.S Byatt, a Romance about two academics who are researching the lives of two Victorian poets. They are brought together when one of them discovers a half drafted letter that connects the two poets. I am a third of the way in the book as I am reading it slowly. It compels me to read slowly. What is so striking about the book and its excerpts of poetry, letters from the two Victorian poets (amongst others), namely the fictious Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, is the fecundity of language.
Take for example the following excerpt from a letter that Ash wrote to a woman who performed séances and who claimed to have spoken with Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
“I am not jesting, Madam. I have attended exhibitions of the kind of manifestations you allude to – nihil humanum a me alienum puto, I may say, as all of my profession should say – and I think the likeliest explanation is a combination of bald fraud and a kind of communal hysteria, a miasma or creeping mist of spiritual anxiety and febrile agitation, that plagues our polite society and titillates our tea-party talk.”
Is it just me or aren’t those highlighted words just gorgeous. I get a thrill up my spine each time I read them. The entire letter is much longer but just in those two sentences, the number of luscious words that roll of the tongue and slows the reader down, is for me, delicious. Other beautiful words I came across were strenuous, queasy, resuscitation, spectres, revenants and bellicose, all of which were woven into the three page letter. What struck me as I read this on my morning commute to work is whether many people would have the patience to read this today as there are so many other factors vying for our attention, namely web content (a bastardised word for writing – as of today I have decided to remove that word from my lexicon).
If one was to blog the letter in full to highlight how séances are fraudulent would many people read it or go ‘nah too long’, next. Recommendations for good blogging includes short punchy sentences, the inclusion of pictures and videos, ensuring the language is simple as this aids understanding and ease of reading, which takes me to my next point.
We now live in an age of information overload whereby 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years and it continues to grow at a rapid rate. The grab for the reader’s attention has never been greater or more challenging for writers of all genres. There is a plethora of e-books, printed books, blogs, Facebook updates, literary magazines both online and offline, news, twitter updates and so forth. The production of written text is endless and to be noticed one adopts the tricks of the trade such as creating blogs that number things. For example instead of writing an eloquent letter one would have a blog heading stating 5 ways to spot a fraudulent séance complete with pictures, videos (if available / relevant) and easy to read ‘content’, oh and the all-important call to action because that is the recommended practise to get noticed and for your piece to be shared.
The algorithms and the marketing spiel have produced the numbers to back this up. Writing online is fast becoming formulaic where the reading experience is pared down, lacking in embellishment like the Corbusier influenced concrete buildings we see everywhere. The words used are the equivalent of plain concrete and glass, efficient and practical.
Whilst reading Possession I felt something rise in me and my reading slowed down so I could ingest these beautiful words and imaginatively experience the sensuality of the language. In the age of information overload we are in danger of losing these beautiful, excessive words and the way the sentences weave in and out, rolling on from each other like a long leisurely walk. I have been as guilty as the next person declaring ‘get to the point, time is short’.
This book has awoken something in me. I realised this morning that I was close to losing the joy of reading for reading’s sake, that I was losing my connection with the lusciousness of language.
*Check out http://www.oed.com/ which is a great online dictionary.