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Random Writing Tips

On the back of my business card, I have a series of random--and excellent--writing tips that I've accumulated over the years.  It's common sense stuff that every writer should follow, be it a student, business writer, novelist, or grant writer.  Or any other kind of writer, for that matter.  I present them to you in no special order.  Heed the advice!

  • Omit needless words.

The best rule from The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White. Good writing is concise. Take out the words that slow down your sentences. The result is vigorous prose that engages your readers.  

Bad Example: "I really think it would help your sentences and overall quality writing by cutting out words that don't help your sentences propel the ideas forward."

The Fix: "Omit needless words."

  • Not everything is "amazing!" 

The word "amazing" has lost its punch thanks to overuse.  Count how many times you hear "amazing" over the course of the day.  See what I mean? Some good replacements: breathtaking, astonishing, fabulous, powerful, incredible.  Come up with your own list of "amazing" replacements, and then put them to work. Your sentences will thank you.

  • Proofread out loud.

The mind plays a trick on our eyes. We know what we wrote, so when we proofread silently, we don't realize we wrote "too" when we meant "two" or "read" when we meant "red." When you proofread out loud you will "hear" your errors. And consider this: a missing letter in "public" can lead to unintended embarrassment to your prose.  Better to proofread out loud than hand in mortifying prose.

  • Avoid the adverb "very."

The word "very" slows down your sentences. It sets up a comparison that you do not need. Example: "My mother is 'very' pretty." As opposed to what? A warthog? Remove "very" from your sentences so that they are strong and declarative.  As Mark Twain said: "Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

  • Don't use the word "literally" when you mean "figuratively."

This is a common mistake.  "Literally" means something is true; "figuratively" is a metaphoric comparison.  For example, if you said, "That movie scared me so much my heart was literally exploding" then you would be writhing on the floor, looking like the creature from the movie Alien  just burst through your chest. This would be a case where "figuratively" is your go-to word.

  • "I remember" is a blocked writer's best friend.

Are you stuck in your first draft? Write down the words "I remember" and then write what you remember. Don't worry about spelling or grammar or even if it makes sense.  If you get stuck again, write down "I remember" once more and then write what else you remember.  It can be a list, stream of consciousness prose, or complete nonsense.  Just keep you pen (or keyboard) moving, let the writing take you where it wants to go, and create a bounty of material to edit into a working draft.  There is no wrong way to do the "I remember" process!

  • Don't fall in love with any of your sentences.

That's right. They will break your heart every time. In other words, no matter how beautifully crafted a sentence strike it out if it doesn't help move your text forward. As many a great writer has said of the editing process: "kill your darlings." I once wrote the single best paragraph summary of WWI for my book Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund. But in the end, it only detracted from the narrative.  It killed me, but I killed it and rightly so.  It just wasn't necessary at that part of the narrative.  



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Some Thoughts on Robert F. Kennedy

Today, June 5, 2018, is the 50th commemoration of the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, killed by an assassin's bullet.  I use the word "commemoration" rather than "anniversary."  The latter word denotes something happy; "commemoration" honors something more somber, a day that should be remembered for reasons sad and difficult.
I remember clearly when Robert Kennedy was shot. I am too young to remember when his older brother was assassinated in Dallas, but the brothers loomed large in my Kennedy Democrat family.  On that morning, I watched news bulletins on the black and white television in my parents' living room.  Robert Kennedy was dead.  I ran to tell my parents, who probably already knew.  It was one of those crystalline moments, just as President Kennedy's assassination was to a previous generation and 9/11 was to a later generation.  I will always remember where I was when I heard the news.  It was nearing the beginning of summer, and I was almost done with the third grade.  The assassination spoke to me.  It said: "you are part of something bigger than yourself."
As I grew older I read with intensity the words, the speeches, the biographies of "Bobby."  The lessons learned were fundamentals in decency, speaking to how we are all interconnected as a nation and a nation's citizens.  For years I was filled with inexplicable sadness every June 5, something I did not understand.  Finally it struck me: it was the day Robert Kennedy died.  A man who united people across so many different lines, race, class, generations.  Had he lived, there is no doubt in my mind he would have been elected president.  What would this country be had we not been cut into a different historical direction?  Vietnam might have ended sooner.  Civil rights would have progressed at a faster and more united pace. Watergate never would have been and with that no legacy of ugly national divisions that grew with each successive presidency over the last five decades.  But you could grow crazy playing those mind games of "what if."
Kennedy certainly was not always a paragon of what became his legacy.  His early work for Senator Joseph McCarthy is difficult to comprehend and accept.  One cannot overlook Kennedy's reputation as "Ruthless Bobby," doing what he had to do to get John Kennedy elected to congress, then senator, then president, and never mind who got knocked around in the battle. His approval as Attorney General of secret wiretaps on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., hoping to find something dirty on the civil rights leader, is unconscionable.  And yet….
It was after his brother's assassination that Robert Kennedy becomes my hero.  His plunging into philosophical study of the ancient Greeks and his own Roman Catholicism, searching for the deeper meanings of life, is complex. Kennedy emerged a different man after this intense period of reflection.  "Ruthless Bobby" transformed into something stronger, a man of compassion and hope, with the firm conviction that our country and its people could improve on America's faults and strengths, with constant societal evolution driving the ongoing great experiment that is America.
The children of that generation of Kennedys often report that people come up to them and say, "your father had profound impact on my own life."  I was one of those people.  When his son Chris Kennedy ran for Governor of Illinois in this year's primary election, I went up to him at a campaign rally.  Those are the words I spoke to him; though I'm sure Chris had heard a variation on this sentence countless of times, we held hands and he said, "Thank you. That's so sweet of you."  Even now, I as I type these words, my eyes well up.
In my writing, in my work as a teacher, I like to think that Robert Kennedy's life and work have some influence.  I write about the triumph of good people over bad, even in the face of unspeakable tragedies and unmitigated evils.   Many of my college writing students come from hard backgrounds; some are DACA students with compounded troubles.  In my classrooms students are demanded to be their best, to express themselves fully, and told that what they have to say matters—because of who they are and from where they come in life story
I always conclude my semesters with words of wisdom far beyond my poor ability to express myself.  I have more or less settled on Robert Kennedy's speech on the night Martin Luther King was assassinated.  It was April 4, 1968.  Now running for president himself, Kennedy was scheduled to give a campaign speech in a hardcore impoverished and mostly black Indianapolis ghetto.  His handlers told him not to do it, that it was too dangerous.  No, Kennedy told them, it must be done.  One can only imagine what thoughts were going through Kennedy's head on the night of another assassination, not even five years after his brother was killed.
Kennedy stood on the back of a flatbed truck (imagine a campaign rally like that today!).  He asked his team, "do they (the crowd) know about Martin Luther King?" No, the crowd did not.  He told the people that he had some sad news—and screams filled the air after he reported what had happened in Memphis that night.  Kennedy then spoke to larger issues.  Though he had prepared notes written down, they remained rolled up in his hand as Kennedy spoke.  His extemporaneous words came not from the head but from the soul.  That night, riot-fueled fires burned through major urban areas across the country.  Not in Indianapolis.  Many credit Kennedy's speech as the balm needed at that difficult time in that difficult hour.
And then, almost two months later to the day, Kennedy himself was struck down.
I often think of this speech.  It is not a speech of regret and sadness, but as Kennedy said "…of love, and wisdom, and compassion towards one another…"  With the words delivered on that terrible night, in what ultimately is one of the most powerful speeches of the modern era, Robert Kennedy continues to speak across the generations, a rallying cry for decency and goodness that is forever a part of his vision for America.


YouTube video of Robert Kennedy's speech on April 4, 1968

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Me and Philip Roth

From right to left: Philip Roth, a bored Irv Kupcinet, barely post-grad school wannabe author and Roth fanboy me (with a full head of hair and five o'clock shadow, no less!)

He was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for my first years of high school I seem to have believed there was no other writer worth reading nor emulating.  Philip Roth is dead.  Long live Philip Roth. 


I first encountered Roth as so many others have: as a young teenager (probably 14) with a dog-eared copy of Portnoy's Complaint, which I purloined from the bookshelf on the headboard of my parents' bed.  I think that might have been the single best way to discover both Roth and Portnoy.

The pages astounded me.  The verbosity of his language, both erudite and profane excited me to no end and on the so many levels that an impressionable youth would have. The speed of the words.  The outrageous comedy that was equal parts Marx Brothers-Lenny Bruce-Franz Kafka, three other masters I had either discovered at the time or was on the verge of discovering.  My love affair was strong and immediate.  I read and reread the book, even if I didn't quite understand it all. Shortly thereafter, the impersonations began.

It still rings loudly across the years, my first attempt to emulate Roth and Portnoy.  It was a short story about a neurotic and awkward suburban Chicago Jewish kid. Like Roth, I went pseudo-autobiographical.  It opened with my anti-hero relieving himself at a urinal in the boy's room of his high school.  He ponders the pubic hairs trapped in the filter on the dry ice cakes at the bottom of the bowl.  "Where did those hairs come from?" my narrator asks.  "Are we going bald?  Is puberty reversing?" 

I handed in the story to an editor at the school literary magazine.  Of course I did.  The response? "God, Bernstein.  You are so gross!"  Well, yeah. Like Portnoy's Complaint, my loquacious excesses were gross; also outrageous, comic, groundbreaking (I thought) for a literary magazine—and in my case, really bad writing as only high school prose of some pretense can be.  But it was my start, even though the magazine rejected it outright.


Within the course of two years I devoured all that Roth had written to date.  I read and reread with religious fervor. Goodbye, Columbus, When She Was Good, Letting Go, Our Gang (my copy of which I'd stolen from my Nixon-hating grandmother), The Breast (the title alone was enough to suckle me in with its carnal sophistication), The Great American Novel (perfect for me, the unathletic but passionate baseball/Marx Brothers fan), and My Life as a Man


So taken was I with the latter novel, that I went to my local public library where in sheer desperation I thumbed the card catalog looking for anything written by Peter Tarnopol.  I was the Portnoy of youthful Philip Roth fans, unable to control my insatiable desires for his ability to blast out words with such controlled anarchic skill.

Papers ensued.  In junior year, I wrote an analysis of the Portnoy family for my Modern Fiction class.  Everyone else went with the standard bearers of Salinger, Updike, and Vonnegut.  I went with the guy who spoke to me in the language of anger and comedy that I understood.


College came and went, then an interim period, and then grad school and my pursuit of "creative writing" (I put that term in off-set apostrophes in an obvious Rothian homage).   At Columbia College, in Chicago, we were given free rein to focus our studies on writers we loved and admired.  Roth was my number one choice for fiction, his generational peer Norman Mailer for nonfiction—a duo that often raised the ire of some of the women students in the program.  But I refused to give in to the long-held literary blowback and addressed the issue outright.

One of my favorite classes in the Columbia Fiction Writing program was "Dialects and Fiction."  In other words, how do you get the sound of a unique voice on the page. I did a comparison/contrast essay, looking at my old friend Portnoy's Complaint and its unlikely relations to the considerable dialect usage within Alice Walker's The Color Purple.  This was no easy task, but one I attacked with the force of a young man behind a billboard with a hunk of liver.  My teacher was impressed with the results; she insisted I do a rewrite and submit to a university literary journal.  Alas, for reasons I don't recall (most likely time), I never did.  (P.S. In retrospect, comparing Roth's book with Walker's is a delicious irony given Ms. Walker's subsequent dives into outspoken anti-Semitism.)


Graduation came and so did important news: Roth was coming to Chicago's storied literary mecca, Stewart Brent Books for a rare signing event to promote his new novel Operation Shylock.  I was beside myself.  I rehearsed what I would say to the Great One, telling him how I discovered Portnoy in my parents' bedroom and how important the book was to my own life and writing.  I was one of the first people in what proved to be a long line.  We all had our Portnoy stories to tell.  At last Roth was ushered in.  He was followed by Irv Kupcinet, the bombastic show biz and entertainment columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.  Kup was last of a dying breed, a Chicago version of Earl Wilson but with a downsized power limited to the Midwest only.  Roth appeared annoyed that Kup was clinging to him as though they were best friends; when Kup took his seat at the signing table next to Roth, the novelist mostly ignored him.  I was struck at how normal Roth looked: not like a writer of riveting and rebellious fiction, but more like the president of the men's club at a suburban synagogue. 

I tried telling him my story.  "So," Roth asked me, "what came out of it?"  Mine was just one of countless fan gushes he'd heard ever since Goodbye, Columbus was published.  I laughed, mostly at my own embarrassment over being such a geeky fanboy.  "I'm here!" was my reply.  Roth asked my name, signed the book, and the magic moment was over.  I had a camera with me, a real film camera in those pre-iPhone days.  I asked someone to take my picture with Roth.  I am all smiles and hair, looking with excitement at my idol.  Roth is bent over, signing my book, a slight smile on his face.  Kup is looking at his watch.


The years passed, the books came, I bought them faithfully, and read them with renewed passion, trying to glean whatever I could from them.  In later years, his powers were clearly diminishing.  I particularly disliked The Humbling, which came off like a well-written old man's pornographic letter to Penthouse Forum.  (The Al Pacino film adaptation improved on Roth's story and lurid prose, but only slightly.)


Then came my own book: Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund, the true story of a long-forgotten late-1930s Hitler inspired movement in the United States. As part of my research I turned to Roth's The Plot Against America, his alternative history wherein Charles Lindbergh becomes president and the fascist anti-Semitic world my real-life villains dreamed of became a horrifying reality.  The book informed me with its straightforward prose, plus we shared an anti-hero in the form of Walter Winchell.  I never sent Roth a copy of my work and I'm sure he never heard of it.  In retrospect, I wish I had sent it to him, regardless of how futile the gesture might have been.

And then, the inevitable.  Yesterday, I opened my New York Times and there it was.  Last week, Tom Wolfe (another writer I admire), and now Roth.  The last of his generation.  There is no good way to conclude this, other than to marvel at the enormous literary output and the Pulitzer and National Book Award honors, plus relish in the outrage of literary fans—as Roth himself did—over the misinformed ignorance of the Nobel Prize in Literature committee (Bob Dylan over Philip Roth? They put their prize money on the wrong Jew.).


So [said the doctor].  Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?

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A Night with Studs

From left to right: Studs Terkel, me, my late great Subaru Sport Impreza

Note: "A Night with Studs" will appear in the upcoming book Carbituaries, coming soon from Everything Goes Media.


In March 2012, after 11 years and 159,000 miles, it was painfully obvious we had to say goodbye to our 2002 Subaru Sport Impreza.  We'd been told the previous September that our axle was beyond repair.  The car should hold out through the winter, but don't push it pass April.  By February the death knell was sounded in the form of metal on metal carillon emanating from the steering column.  We bade the car adieu. In a metaphorical way, I felt like I was shooting Old Yeller.


We bought the silver gray beauty in the spring of 2001.  After just two weeks of ownership the car received its highest honor in all of its miles.  It began when some friends who were in town asked if we wanted to join them for dinner with one of their old pals, a certain Mr. Studs Terkel.


How fast could I say "yes?"  I grew up in a household where Studs Terkel was viewed as a god for us mere mortals.  When I was in high school, I used to call him up at his home radio station, WFMT in Chicago, and ask him questions about his books.  I was a green fourteen-year-old with a squeaky voice, but Studs was always gracious and kind to my adolescent pretentiousness.


At dinner Studs held court, albeit he couldn't hear a word.  "I'm deef!" he announced as we sat down. "D-E-E-F!"  He downed a martini, then another, regaling us with his old stories.   The one-way conversation was interrupted throughout the night as other diners stopped by our table just to say a few words to Studs.  Each time he smiled with grace, nodding with feigned interest at sentences he could not hear. 


At one point, I noticed someone walking swiftly through the restaurant, glancing at our party, and with obvious intent to avoid any word—heard or unheard—with Chicago's iconic raconteur.   I whispered to my friend, "see that guy who just passed?  He's a former Republican governor of Illinois and a hardcore conservative."  We both laughed.  Clearly, Ex-Governor I-Won't-Name-Him was not a fan of the fiercely liberal Pulitzer Prize winner at our table.


Dinner wound down, Studs drank his last martini, and it was time to call it a night.  Then came The Great Moment: our friends told me that I'd be driving Studs home. 


I fled to the valet stand to get our car while in my brain old tape loops emerged, replaying my naïve adolescent analyses of Workingand Division Street: America that Studs had so patiently listened to all those years ago.  Now, however, as he waited for me to return from the valet for that ride home, Studs's patience as exhibited in one of those ancient conversations was long gone.  My wife told me later that as they were waiting, the many martinis had done their trick.  She could barely contain herself from laughing while Studs barked out time and again, "Where is Bernstein with that car? I have to pee!"


As we drove home Studs once again held court…and this time in the backseat of our new car, for an audience of two.  I shouted questions about literary figures he'd interviewed and he weighed in on their merits and personalities.  All too quickly we arrived at Studs's house.  I helped him out of the car and then to his front door, making sure Studs got in safely to take that much longed for pee.


I returned to the car and announced that although the Subaru was just two weeks old, we would have to buy new one: driving home Studs Terkel would be the pinnacle this car's life and it could never be used again.  It now must be consigned to our garage for contemplation and homage to its greatest night.


Of course that was not the case.  We drove it the next day and many days after that.  Now the car was dying and Studs was dead nearly four years himself, having "checked out" (as he referred to death) on Halloween, 2008.   The time had come.  Our old Subaru was traded in and replaced with a brand spanking new Honda Crosstour.


I'm sure that beautiful old Subaru Sport Impreza was stripped for parts, its remains smashed against other vehicles in some anonymous scrapyard.  But it is not unceremoniously rusting.  I imagine Studs's melodious gravel grinder of a voice echoing from our old backseat, forever serenading other ancient automobiles with his signature signoff:


"Take it easy…but take it."

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Remembering John Schultz

When I was a graduate student in the Fiction Department at Chicago's Columbia College, we were lucky enough to have the acclaimed novelist Harry Mark Petrakis teach a one-shot workshop.  He read us a draft of a story, then started cutting words—"trimming the fat," as he put it.  What emerged was a powerful and more gripping tale.  Petrakis's lesson was simple, often taught, but still enlightening to a novice like me.


Afterwards, I spoke with John Schultz, my professor that semester for Fiction II, department chair for the program, and creator of the Story Workshop method of writing.  "That was really something," I said. 


"You may be seeing that soon," he responded. 


At our next session, John read one of my stories, then took out a red pen and slashed without mercy.  The fat was trimmed, the muscle emerged.   I was invigorated. 


That was John, who passed away at age 84 on Saturday, May 6, 2017.  He demanded smart writing from his students, and he got it.  On one of my stories, in which I described a villainous grade school teacher as being filled with "black-hearted blood," John wrote two words next to my verbiage: "oh please."  The hyperbolic excesses were vanquished.  For one exercise he asked each of us to bring in a novel with a strong writing voice on the page.  I chose Compulsion by Meyer Levin, a semi-fictional account of the notorious 1924 murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two University of Chicago students who believed they were Nietzshean supermen.  In the scene I read, one of the protagonists forces himself on his girlfriend in an unflinching description of sexual assault, told with a raw brutality.  While an older student in the class said she felt it was an honest account of how the world once worked, most of the other women in class were furious with me.  How dare I read such stuff—as if I were endorsing date rape.  I found myself apologizing.


At the break, John confronted me in the hallway.  The selection I brought in was powerful and complicated, he told me, and I was right to read it despite the protestations of my classmates. Then, in his deep senatorial voice that always commanded my respect, he said, "Never apologize." Another short two-word lesson that has long stayed with me.


That said, I never found John to be intimidating or aloof.  Rather, he was exactly who he was: a passionate teacher who loved to bring out the best in his students.  His Story Workshop method—telling a story fully, seeing in the mind, surprising yourself with words and following them wherever they lead—blew apart the standard way of writing we've all been taught since grade school: A paragraph should have so many lines.  A paper should have so many paragraphs.  Begin with a thesis. The body of the paper should develop your talking points. In your conclusion, the thesis must be restated.  Diagram sentences to understand how they're grammatically put together.


Nonsense to all that was John's approach.  "A major emphasis on grammar actually hinders students in learning to write effectively," he declared in his book Writing From Start to Finish.  "When writers rely on their intuitive grammatical sense and put their effort and concentration on getting across what they have to say…their expression becomes better-formed….(T)heir writing stands a chance of becoming compelling."


Twenty-five years later, I'm now a college writing teacher, applying with vigor what I learned in John's classroom.  I teach community college English 101 classes at one school; at another, where the student body is about 99 percent Hispanic, I teach developmental writing.  I use Story Workshop methods in both classes, emphasizing to my students that essays are best when a natural writing voice commands the page.  This goes over well in my 101 classes to be sure, but it is in the Developmental Writing sections where John's lessons take glorious flight.  As the semester begins, many students come to class terrified.  It's a non-credit course they must take in order to get into 101.  At the beginning of the term I meet students who've had it drummed into their heads that "writing" must fit into rigid formulas.  Not an easy proposition for 18-year-olds, for whom many do not speak or write in English as their first language.


I push them like John pushed me, telling them to write in their natural voice, to "sound like you."  Don't worry about grammar or spelling.  Don't worry about getting it wrong—you can't as long as you have something to say.  Write it down, write it down, write it down.  When the draft is complete you go back and "trim the fat."  And it works.  I open every semester asking students if they're afraid to write (they are!) and why.  The usual reasons come up: grammar, spelling, I don't know what to say, I don't know how to get started.  Story Workshop blows through those misconceptions and after sixteen weeks students who once were afraid to face the blank page or screen tell me, "I can write!" 


This past semester one student told me she was afraid to write because maybe she wasn't "smart enough."  After class, I read her the Riot Act, telling her that yes, she not only was "smart enough," but that when I was through with her she'd be writing beautifully.  By the end of the semester she had developed a powerful voice, speaking to her experiences as the daughter of immigrants and the prejudices her family endured.  Her work was angry, forthright, and riveting.  In her final essay, writing a reaction to a story on The Great Depression of the 1930s, one of her sentences was as beautifully written description of that era as I've ever read: "People suffered."


When class let out, I called her over.  We shook hands, both smiling like idiots.  "Smart enough?" I asked.  She nodded affirmatively.  I'd like to think this was something John would have told her.


There's so much more I could write about John.  How he brought in the short story "Slight Rebellion Off Madison" by J. D. Salinger, originally published by The New Yorker in December of 1946.  The story, told in third-person, was about the adventures in New York City of a young man named Holden Caulfield.  John then read the same scene, as rewritten in first-person for Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.  An invaluable lesson in "good writing is rewriting" that still inspires all these years later.  (As an aside, when my niece was reading Catcher for her high school English class, I repeated John's lesson by giving her a copy of the original New Yorker story, and telling her to look over how it was rewritten.  "Go show those other mopes you have to go to school with how to learn," I told her.)


I end with this: years after I graduated, when I would see John at readings or book launch parties of other former students and teachers, he would tell me how much he liked my books Bath Massacre: America's First School Bombing and Swastika Nation: Fritz Kuhn and the Rise and Fall of the German-American Bund.  He praised the vividness of my writing.  That meant the world to me.  One of the last times I saw John was at the wake for his life partner-in-crime Betty Shiflett.  Standing with John and a friend of his, I told the friend, "Without John, there is no me."  John laughed, that wonderful hearty laugh of his, and told me I was too kind.  But it was true then and it's true now.


John Schultz was my teacher.

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Pouring Over Print: the 5k of Modern Reading?

Reading is hard.  Seriously, reading is hard.  I don't mean hard in the sense of working your way up and down the sometimes-impenetrable prose of James Joyce's Ulysses; I tried it myself, got lost somewhere on page two, and never went back.  But Joycean labyrinths aside, as someone who has devoted his life to reading and writing, I've always enjoyed the physical act of reading, the communing of writer to reader via words.  In particular, I love reading the often forgotten books and/or magazines and/or newspapers of publishers long gone out of business. It's like the words were quietly waiting, ready to be rediscovered and enjoyed by fresh eyes. As a writer of history and nonfiction, these kinds of finds are a verbal feast, overflowing with new surprises and joys at every turn.


Last year, while sucking in the Lincoln sites in Springfield, IL (as an Illinois resident, I'm required by state law to be a Lincoln geek) I stopped at the Old State Capitol building.  When I entered the chamber of the 19th century state legislature, I stood on the podium where the Speaker of the House would have run the show.  I took in the view of empty wooden seats and imagined what it must have looked like 100 or so odd years ago, with top-coated men talking noisily while sucking on cigars and firing gooey phlegm into spittoons.  In the midst of this both admiring and disgusting recreation of the mind, I noticed a book on the podium, stuck in a little cubbyhole where they must have kept notes of some sort.  The book was published during the late 1910s.  It was a novel by some long forgotten author, with the owner's name printed on the inside cover in tiny but efficient penmanship.  I flipped open to the middle of the book and started reading. I'm glad I did. The writing was of the period, overflowing with once fashionable rhetorical flourishes now moldy to the modern reader.  None of that mattered.  A long forgotten writer and a long forgotten book--once so important to its owner that she wrote her name on the flyleaf--became new again, words so carefully crafted coming to life a century later when I opened it up and started reading. 


A recent vacation made me realize just how hard the physical act of reading is to undertake for we readers of 2017 as opposed to our 1917 counterparts.  Here's some anecdotal evidence, slim though it is: I was waiting in the airport terminal in Chicago for my delayed flight to Phoenix.  I was devouring The New York Times Sunday magazine, switching it off with Philip K. Dick's novel, The Man in the High Castle.  I have a tendency to juggle between multiple books, newspapers, and magazines; otherwise, I'd never get through all the things that I need to read.  Besides, I enjoy careening between different reading materials.  Taking a mental breather, I casually engaged in the voyeuristic near-art of people watching.  The terminal was crowded, to be sure, stuffed with passengers of all races and ethnicities, genders and generations.  These differences aside, there was a common denominator to the mosaic. People's eyes were glued to screens.  Little iPhones.  Big iPads.  Laptops galore.    Everywhere I looked, the glow of screen lights illuminated faces as necks hunched over devices and eyes bugged out sucking in the stimulation. 


I did see two people holding books, but they weren't reading them; instead these passengers were working their phone screens intently.  There was one exception, a middle-aged woman engrossed in her copy of New York Magazine.  That's when it struck me: reading is hard work.  Holding a book or magazine, then schlepping around the material in a carry-on requires some dexterity.  It's a lot to lug around, particularly if, like me, you've got multiple materials.  I understand that I'm the odd man out here: in the hurly burly of an airport, it's much easier to poke a smartphone in your pocket or a tablet in your carry-on bag—the modern version of previous generations' morning newspaper or trade paperback. 


So, yes, eyes were glued to screens and reading, as opposed to the pair of travelers with unopened books. But I had to ask myself: was anyone reading reading?  I wasn't sure.  A study published in Scientific American  suggests that our brains are wired to comprehend reading material as topography, navigating our way through a page as we take in the words.  Because books have finite space we can understand the boundaries as our eyes move from page to page, and thus we are more engaged.  In contrast, unending scrolling through screens forces us to skim the words—and eventually our eyes glaze over.  Furthermore, the glare from screens can force our eyes to physically back off, unlike the more orb-friendly medium of paper that automatically draws us in.  By those standards, Facebook and Twitter are ideal reading for PDAs; social media depends on quick comprehension and uncomplicated thoughts that don't require anything other than a cursory glance.  The brain navigates those landscapes quickly, and then moves on to the next landmark.  Ebooks and magazines are a little easier on the eye, but are still better for short term reading rather than long stretches.  The differences between screen and paper are sort of like walking from the couch to the kitchen versus running a 5k race. 


Like I said: reading is hard work.


Am I saying people who engage with a smartphone to inform Facebook friends of flight delays, whilst soaking in posts of people screaming pro-and-con about politics, see the word "yummy" as a status beneath someone's photo of a delectable dinner, or watch a shared video of adorable kitties bouncing on trampolines, are somehow inferior to traditional book and newspaper readers?  I'm a snob, but I'm not that big a snob (I'd like to think that anyway).  In fact, I have to plead guilty to the siren call of the screen myself. Wanting to react to this digital takeover of airport reading, I took notes for this blog post on my iPhone.  I'm now writing this essay on a laptop rather than scribbling in Mead Notebook or pounding on a Royal Upright (oh, nostalgia!).  And you and I are engaged in this conversation via a screen.  Reading and reading habits have fundamentally changed.  But in doing so, it seems like we've reduced what should be a healthy 5k to a few inconsequential steps between couch and kitchen.


Better minds than me have thrashed this conundrum about, so I'll wrap it up with simple considerations.  Reading is hard.  Print is more engaging because it pulls you in, while skimming during scrolling doesn't require active engagement.   For all the digital eye candy of ebooks, websites, and social media, I'll take the more complicated navigation of print anytime and anywhere, be it an old book poked away on a podium or juggling between a magazine and a novel in an airport waiting area.  I want the hard work that reading demands.


That said, don't ask me to give up my iPhone or iPad or MacBook Pro.  I may be sanctimonious (okay, I am sanctimonious), but I'm no luddite either.  And if you want to buy me an iWatch, I'm open to receiving tribute.

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