12/22/2010 5:29:15 PM
Long-form journalism—nuanced, rigorous, eloquent, and reasonable—is a mode of writing quickly being swept into the ashy dustbin of history.
The previous sentence, punctuation included, is 140 characters long, which is the maximum length of a tweet and—according to media scholars, news anchors, and frustrated teachers—the maximum attention span of anyone with a computer. Facebook status updates, overflowing RSS feeds, and smartphones are symptoms of a deeper malady, a hunger to consume more and more information. It would seem that painstakingly-crafted essays and deeply-researched journalism stand no chance in this hyperactive environment.
On the contrary, Wired's Clive Thompson argues that info-nibbles like status updates, tweets, and news briefs increase our appetite for in-depth, long-form writing:
The torrent of short-form thinking is actually a catalyst for more long-form meditation. When something newsworthy happens today . . . you get a sudden blizzard of status updates. These are just short takes, and they’re often half-baked or gossipy and may not even be entirely true. But that’s OK; they’re not intended to be carefully constructed. Society is just chewing over what happened, forming a quick impression of What It All Means. The long take is the opposite: It’s a deeply considered report and analysis, and it often takes weeks, months, or years to produce.
Thompson notes some observations on how blogging has changed over the last 10 years. Bloggers, he says, now post less frequently, saving the big ideas for more careful articulation and broadcasting fleeting thoughts over social networks instead. Thompson also mentions that the most popular blog posts exceed 1,600 words.
This trend hasn’t been lost on web-developers. A number of websites and applications cater to voracious readers. To make lengthy reads easier on the eyes, the bookmarklet Readability eliminates advertisements and sidebars from websites, giving you a clean column of text right down the middle of your computer screen. Come across a provocative article that you just can’t squeeze into your lunch break? Instapaper allows you to store and save profound writing for later perusal. Finally, Longreads is an aggregator that links to the web’s best creative non-fiction and investigative journalism.
Image by Ahmad Hammoud, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/20/2010 3:01:59 PM
Over the course of her career, unauthorized celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley has been accused of many ethical lapses: She’s been dubbed a “poison-pen biographer” and “an assassin of honorable statesmen,” her journalistic drive portrayed as “all about finding dirt, not the truth,” and her work accused of being “garbage and sleaze” and “exceed[ing] the bounds of decency” with “flagrant and absurd falsehoods.” You’d be excused if you find her salacious, door-busting profiles of the rich and powerful little more than sensational A-list gossip—this has been the press’ narrative of Kelley’s work, from her biography of Frank Sinatra to a profile of George Bush and family to her latest book on Oprah Winfrey. Kelley, in an essay for The American Scholar, argues that her work (and unauthorized biographies in general) occupies a much higher place than mere tabloid rumor: a gritty bastion of the free press.
“I believe that the best way to tell a life story is from the outside looking in,” begins Kelley’s defense,
and so I choose to write with my nose pressed against the window rather than kneel inside for spoon-feedings. Most of the great biographies are written about people who are dead, and thus the biographies are unauthorized. Championing the independent or unauthorized biography might sound like a high-minded defense for a low-level pursuit, but I do not relish living in a world where information is authorized, sanitized, and homogenized. I read banned books, I applaud whistleblowers, and I reject any suppression by church or state. To me, the unauthorized biography, which requires a combination of scholarly research and investigative reporting, is best directed at those figures, still alive and able to defend themselves, who exercise power over our lives. So I only pursue the kings (and queens) of the jungle.
In the essay, Kelley also takes issue with celebrities’ “corrosive sense of self-entitlement”:
In an interview that Maria Shriver granted to The Washington Post not long ago, she waved off the reporter’s questions, telling him instead which questions she wanted to be asked. To the reporter’s credit, he wrote about her taking over the role of questioner and answerer, “as if she’s conducting a sit-down with a ventriloquist-doll version of herself.” And that was moments after she dismissed the Post’s photographer, snapping, “That’s enough.”
Celebrity demands could easily be dismissed as amusing diva excesses if they weren’t so readily indulged, and it’s the indulgence that enables celebrities to construct their own mythologies in the public consciousness.
One of Kelley’s best quotes comes toward the end of the article. She recounts how she was included in a book called 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (number 80): “Granted, this was not nearly as illustrious as being on Nixon’s enemies list, but when the Associated Press called for a reaction, I said I was proud to be included in any group with President Jimmy Carter, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, and actor/activist Harry Belafonte.”
Source: The American Scholar
Image courtesy of www.kittykelleywriter.com.
12/20/2010 10:19:27 AM
The word freaks at the Oxford English Dictionary have long had a reputation for being snobs—exhaustive snobs, with something of a completist obsession, but snobs all the same. To say that they’ve been challenged on multiple fronts in recent decades would perhaps be an understatement, and as James Gleick writes in The New York Review of Books blog, the OED’s mission has gotten all the more complicated (and comprehensive) thanks to its roomy new digs in cyberspace.
I’ll confess to being a dictionary obsessive. I own at least a dozen, including a 12-volume set of the OED, the two volume unabridged (with magnifying glass), and an unabridged Webster’s that requires a sturdy stand. I also don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I consult a dictionary at least once a day, and a search for the meaning or etymology of a particular word will often lead to an hour spent wending my way along sidetracks and stumbling into interesting—if useless—cul-de-sacs.
That said, when it comes to words and their meanings there may be such a thing as too much information. Samuel Johnson understood this when he more or less singlehandedly produced his own enduring, and remarkably succinct, contribution to lexicography in 1755. Gleick also clearly understands this, and his piece, in fact, addresses the recent OED regime’s obsession with that single word: “Information.”
“In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for ‘information’ is utterly overhauled,” Gleick observes.
The renovation has turned a cottage into a palace. Information, n., now runs 9,400 words, the length of a novella. It is a sort of masterpiece—an adventure in cultural history. A century ago “information” did not have much resonance. It was a nothing word. “An item of training; an instruction.” Now (as people have been saying for fifty years) we are in the Information Age. Which, by the way, the OED defines for us in its dry-as-chili-powder prose: “the era in which the retrieval, management, and transmission of information, esp. by using computer technology, is a principal (commercial) activity.”
Through those 9,400 words the OED editors track “information” from its humble origins to its current status as a teeming metropolis of meaning, and as fascinating as that journey can be at times, it’s also exhaustive to the point of exhausting.
Gleick quotes an attempt by Michael Proffitt, the OED’s managing editor, to justify the dictionary’s aggressive approach to blowing out the definition of “information,” even at the risk of leeching the word of all real meaning:
What makes it so distinctive as the fabric of mass communication is the very combination of immateriality and massiveness, its overwhelming diffuseness. It’s also a word which provides a point of imaginative sympathy between OED‘s editors and readers.
That paragraph—troubling on so many different levels—says about all you need to know about both the current state of our language and the slowly eroding “imaginative sympathy” that exists between the OED’s editors and readers.
Source: The New York Review of Books Blog
Image by Cofrin Library, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/15/2010 4:51:59 PM
“People want their sin the way they want it,” writes The Threepenny Review’s Sarah Deming in a spirited screed against crème-brûlée-tinis, glow-in-the-dark Jell-O shots, and all things mixology. “This is something every drug dealer and pornographer knows, so why can’t today’s upscale bartenders understand? To the so-called mixologists, I say: Pour up and shut up.”
Mixology—the creative pursuit of making ever-more complicated and obscure alcoholic mixed-drinks—has been gaining cultural and commercial steam for decades, but has been lambasted since its inception. H.L. Mencken is credited in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary as the first to use the word “mixology” in writing, notes Deming. Mencken dismissed the word as “silly” and proof of drink-slingers’ “meager neologistic powers” in his 1948 essay “The Vocabulary of the Drinking Chamber.” Is it so hard, Mencken and Deming wonder, for a person to drink some plain old, unpretentious booze?
Deming recounts a particularly frustrating exchange when she brought her father out for a drink in Tribeca:
In his broad Oklahoman accent, he ordered an Amaretto sour.
I’ll never forget the way the waiter smirked. “We don’t serve those here.”
“Why not?” Dad asked.
“The mixologist doesn’t like Amaretto.”
My father looked hurt and confused. He was probably trying to simultaneously parse the word “mixologist” and understand why it mattered whether he liked Amaretto, since it was my father who was going to drink it.
“Do you maybe want a whiskey sour, Dad?” I asked. “They’re really good here.”
He shook his head stubbornly. “How about a mojito?”
This time the waiter actually laughed. “We don’t have those this time of year.”
I forget what Dad ended up drinking. Whatever it was, the mood had been ruined. He felt like a hick, and I felt like a jerk for exposing him to such unkindness. This was an ongoing theme in our relationship. You can never make up for a childhood spent apart, and Dad and I were always out of step in each other’s world. We were always thirsty for something that wasn’t on the menu. A bar should be the kind of place that lubricates such tensions, rather than aggravating them.
Reservations aside, Deming ultimately calls for compromise: “Drinkers should try new things, even if they aren’t ‘the usual.’ Bartenders should honor the spirit of the public house, a place with wide-open doors.”
Source: The Threepenny Review
Image by Dana Moos, Realtor, licensed under Creative Commons.
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