In the year that just ended, we surrendered to the word. Not merely reading or writing it, as we have done through the ages, but consuming it, in ever larger proportions, in ever evolving avatars.
It was a willing, hungry surrender, as jaded eyes scanned millions of tweets, blog posts or Facebook status updates, scouring through the ephemera of human thought, or as eager hands grabbed at the latest electronic reader, where you could download yesterday’s wisdom guised in tomorrow’s clothes. The year may not go down in history for launching any of these innovations (most of them were already there when the year began). But 2010 was when the Word exploded, crawled under the skin and became our flesh.
There was hardly a corner of the world that remained unaffected by the explosion of verbosity. If you were an i-consumer, the Storyville application could deliver short stories to your device. If you were a struggling author, there was a possibility that you had been recruited by the American writer James Frey to his fiction factory, where you collaborate with several others to write a bestseller in lieu of an allowance.
Reado, a start-up initiative in India, found out that those commuters, condemned to long hours behind the wheel, or those walking the treadmill, would rather listen to books being read out over an mp3 format than listen to music. The Oxford English Dictionary, on discovering that 90% of human communication takes place using only 7,000 words, launched its online campaign to ‘save the word’— where you could adopt a word and keep it in circulation by frequently using it in conversation (‘Hi Mulcible, am home’ is one of the examples used on the site) or even getting it tattooed (‘tremefy’, maybe, on the forearm?).
Traditional books kept being mourned, the likelihood of their demise agonised over even as the paranoid worried about a mega-database keeping a log of the searches and annotations in their e-books. Few remembered that human beings did not evolve clutching bound volumes under their armpit, that the etchings on caves and parchment scrolls are as much a part of human thought as the lit screens you read out of, or that digitising books from libraries across the world will someday make winners out of everybody.
Jonathan Franzen was lauded, as he disconnected from every possible media to stare at a blank wall, readying to hurl his epic tome Freedom at this limited-attention-span humanity. Elsewhere, poets made the most of the 140 characters that Twitter would allow to debate metrical nuances in the virtual fora.
The dumbing down is unavoidable, some of the learned said. How else would the plebeian read? Look at popular Indian English fiction, consumed by the thousands no doubt, but such bad grammar, and worse metaphors. Abroad, astute social observers conjured up nightmare scenarios of every single commuter in an underground train reading Stieg Larsson (never mind reading, but Larsson? A felony indeed). And then, which of us could avoid that hearty laugh when Oprah Winfrey recommended Charles Dickens as Christmas reading (admittedly, a tad late in the day), sending American housewives scurrying towards the grandeur and decay of Victorian London.
As the year winded up, Google’s application of data analysis to the humble word spawned a new field — culturonomics — that allows a user to chart the historical course of a word over centuries. A word no longer remains merely a tool to communicate; it is now an actor of cultural history. Its concise usage might be the breakthroughs literary genres are looking for, a novel expression that fits the new modes of reception of the age as well as the new mores of living.