Sunday, September 10, 2023

Why Writing Still Matters

My new book Why Writing Still Matters was published by Cambridge University Press last week. I haven't actually seen a copy yet - distribution being something slightly different from printing and publication, but I'm fairly certain it exists in that particular material form. And that's actually a significant transformation because up until this point in time it has been entirely digital. From proposal through to draft and final chapters it has been a thing on a computer screen. During this time the 10 months worth of writing has found its way up and down the country, across to New York and then out to Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry) for proofing. I mention all this because it's directly related to a major theme in the book. I wanted to explore, to think about and perhaps rethink writing in the context of digital communication. Does writing still matter? Of course, it will come as no surprise that I do think that it still matters - but of course, how, why and in what ways is central to the book. I don't make much of the double meaning of 'mattering'. With the rise of new materialism that's become rather old hat, but nevertheless my book does dwell on the materiality of print and digital technology. And still I find myself keen - perhaps too keen - to actually hold the thing. It has had an ephemeral existence for too long. I want to feel its substantial form, its heft. I want to see it occupying some space on my desk, my windowsill, the kitchen table. I want to take it with me in the car and watch others browse through it. And I want to give a copy to some of those who have contributed to its development. It's almost as if its 'thingness', its existence as a work only becomes complete when it achieves a certain material form. Why should that be the case? A common sense way of thinking about this is to recall that I did actually set out to write a book. I wasn't thinking of an extended blogpost, a free-to-use extended pdf essay, a beer mat or anything else. I was imagining a book all along. I shouldn't be so surprised. An observation, that can be found in the book, is that we live in a sort of halfway house, in which pen and paper happily co-exist with keyboards and screens. Our local high street probably still has a stationer's that stocks pencils, pencil sharpeners, pencil cases and all the other peripheral devices associated with what is sometimes referred to as traditional literacy. We might need to Google 'stationers near me' to find it, but that's my point. Back to the book - Why Writing Still Matters ends up being something like a cultural history of writing. My rather unsystematic tracing of writing through its long history is a way of illustrating many of the amazing and inventive uses - and staggeringly tragic misuses - of the written word. Its reach and its influence. Writing itself is value-neutral and like any technology, it is malleable. But it has become an established part of how we develop perspective, how we legislate, how we govern and build knowledge. It's part of how we unite around a common cause. It's part of informed debate. Of course, it's a whole host other things too - and not all of them are so positive. But perhaps an education in and through writing is the best we can have. I hope I have contributed to that understanding - but all that aside, I have another hope, too. I hope those who get to the book will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.