Monday, January 28, 2013

The value of the written word or are you smarter than an 8th grader?

Lately I've become aware of two schools of thought on blogging.  One says it's just an overblown diary of regurgitated diatribe while the other holds it up as the purest form of writing.  Funny thing is, there's merit in both opinions determined entirely by whose stuff you happen to be reading.

The question I have to ask myself is:  Does the value of the work depend on popular opinion or the actual quality of the content? 

Take the example of a textbook.  It can be invaluable in teaching you a new skill but you can be certain it will never make it to anyone's bestseller's list.  On the other hand, the most popular book in the world still happens to be the Bible.  The value of which is debatable depending on whether you think it should be shelved in Fiction or Non-Fiction.  I'm not touching that one...

The point is, nobody ever raved about their favorite textbook.  It's full of cold, boring facts arranged in the most uninteresting and tedious manner possible.  No fun. 

If you're a Boomer whose outgrown Harlequin Romance novels, however, "50 shades of grey" is on par with Hemingway. 

It's said that a good writer writes to their audience, nothing more, nothing less.  To do otherwise dooms you to perpetual anonymity.  So it's not enough to "know thyself", we have to know everybody else too. 

Considering the literary company "50 Shades of Grey" keeps, it's unlikely to end up on anyone's list of great classical literature.  E.L. James, however, knew her audience and has found great success because of it.

But does 65 million copies sold worldwide make her work any more relevant than the heartfelt musings found in a blog about the daily struggles of single mom?   What about the cancer researcher whose passion to find a cure finds an outlet in her blog?  Is this work any less deserving of attention because it doesn't cater to our lowest selves?

I found an article recently about a formula used to determine the grade equivalency level of your writing.  It's said anything above the 8th grade reading level is difficult for most people to understand.  Think about what you were reading in 8th grade and the landscape looks pretty bleak.  It's suggested to "write down" to your readers. 
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So far, according to the formula, this article's written at a 9th grade level by the way. 

I think that's the wrong direction.  It's offensive to me that instead of striving to improve our comprehension we're encouraged to "dumb down" our content.   If it's true that knowledge is power then we should be actively pursuing it not waiting for someone to package it for us.

And you know, sometimes, that's not fun...


It's the pursuit of our better selves that provides the greatest reward.  I'm not looking to talk down to anyone, I just want to be able have an intelligent conversation.  That anyone would suggest that you're not entitled to be any smarter than the average 8th grader should be revolting to you.  Yet that's exactly the message we're assaulted with every day.

We're a society that's become dependent on devices without any concept of how they work.  If they break we just buy another.  Even popular entertainment is less about a good story than the spectacle.  Consider that if a television series like Star Trek, Bonanza or Perry Mason were produced today as they were decades ago, they wouldn't have lasted a season.

We now embrace a popular culture based almost entirely on image instead of talent.  Let's get real here, Elvis could sing, Justin Bieber can't (and Lady Gaga is suspect too.)

A generation ago economic status had a direct relationship to the pursuit of knowledge.  Our boomer parents were encouraged to better themselves because a civilized society depended on it.  Whether or not your education was formal its value was unquestioned.  Now we step over PHD's who've taken up residence in alleyways. 


Which is why I find intensely offensive any formula that calls itself a "readability index calculator" that purports that good writing requires no participation from the reader.

Something's changed since I was in grade school because that's 180 degrees from what I was taught.  It's not that I believe every reader should have a Master's degree but if you don't understand something, look it up.  That's what Google is for!  It's called learning and painful as it may be you have no excuse not to know something.  Unfortunately for most, the information is not always neatly packaged like some  Android app so they just forget about it and try to level up in Angry Birds.

It's amazing that the very thing that offers the best chance for human advancement is the same thing that devalues all of us.  Don't allow anyone to package your point of view for you, the world has enough fundamentalist morons running around.