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5 Reasons Why Words Matter

Ali Eteraz, author of Children of Dust, wrote in Medium last Tuesday that words are losing their potency and power. He believes the mighty Instagram, with its frozen pixelated memories, is our future. Though perhaps unconsciously, he said, “Instagram and its cousins represent an undeclared war on writing. On words.”

Eteraz believes that in the beginning, the Internet encouraged words. Text statuses reigned supreme in the first days of Facebook. But then, a change slowly began to develop:

First, by progressively smaller bursts of text (websites became blogs, became status updates, became 144 character tweets), and then through the enthronement of the image. Whether it is moving pictures (Youtube, Vimeo, Liveleak), or photo-sharing sites like Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, it goes without saying that we are well on our way to communicating with each other by way of pictures.

There is one important and distinctive difference, however, between the sorts of “words” projected on the Internet, and those words utilized by storytellers throughout time. In the print era, the newspapers and books told stories of the other: of the powerful in Washington or on Wall Street, of a neighbor’s child who won a spelling bee, of Bobby Jones the golf player or General Robert E. Lee. Besides the private introspection of the diary or public thoughtfulness of the memoir, stories of self were at least somewhat limited.

But in the world of Internet and social media, another narrative has begun to reign supreme: namely, the self-narration. Facebook and Twitter statuses create constant self-publication. This public diary has wooed us away from the storybooks; after all, between General Lee and myself, whom will my ego find more fascinating?

With the initiation of Instagram, self-describing words became self-describing pictures. Instead of striving to help the user know and understand “who I am and how I feel” via statuses, the Instagram image asks you to merely see who I am, and to know “me” on that front. Eteraz does not view this as an alarming trend – except perhaps selfishly, he surmises, as a writer who wants to save his income. For most of society, he supposes, such a trend is normal:

After all, we are descendants of cavemen that told their stories upon stone walls by way of images. And we are descended of societies where the primary language was the hieroglyph, which is nothing more than words represented in imagistic forms. From this perspective we shouldn’t show much concern if our societies transition away from words and move to communicating by way of the image.

But here again, Eteraz does not seem to notice that the very nature of what is communicated has changed. Hieroglyphics and caveman images did not contain self-musing diary entries. Many contained histories and chronicles of kingdoms and clans, as well as ceremonial and religious messages. The “hieroglyphics” of Instagram rarely contain any of these things. As the image grows omnipotent online, the stories we tell are changing. News has increasingly subsided from such typographic-focused sites as the New York Times to the image-based commentary of Buzzfeed. Rather than reading “long-winded” titles, we watch long-winded Netflix shows. Eteraz sees this trend to the image as inevitable:

 …Most realists among the wordsmiths already know that short of some massive cataclysm that lays to waste the electronic grid that makes the delivery of images so easy, we are pretty much done for. Whenever I walk past the cinemas and the cafes with flat screen TV’s and look at our children tapping away at pictures on iPads and think about how no one cares about reading the lengths of Proust, or Yukio Mishima, or Qurratulain Hyder, the thoroughness of the wordsmith’s dispossession comes to mind…

But, he surmises, writers’ laments on the subject are merely selfish, as we cannot “live with the thought that [we] are also irrelevant. If there are no words there are no smiths.” This negates all the inherent and transcendent merits of words themselves. He does recognize – and devotes one sentence – to the thought that some writers believe “words have something to contribute to this world, something important.” But he does not extrapolate this thought: What do words contribute to this world? Why do they matter?

There is neither time nor space to full extrapolate the importance of words in this post. But perhaps this short list will identify some reasons for words’ preeminence throughout time as the highest form of communication:

#1. The ability to communicate through words makes us human.

Any monkey can take a picture with a smartphone. Point and click. But the ability to encapsulate a moment in nouns and verbs, adjectives and adverbs – only a human can do that. It is the height of linguistic and cognizant evolution to the evolutionist, the sacredness of humanity to the Christian (“In the beginning was the Word”).

#2. Words give expression to the abstract in a way that image cannot.

“To be or not to be – that is the question.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

The moment you can take an Instagram photo that captures this sentence, with all its philosophy, anguish, and transcendence, perhaps you will convince me that an image can properly replace words.

#3. Word gives us the full story: its context, background, beginning and ending.

Humans love story. We always have. It enchants the two-year-old and 70-year-old, binds the angst-ridden teenager and wizened professor. While pictures can capture a beautiful moment in story, they cannot capture narrative in its entirety. Story at its best includes words.

#4. Words connect us to the other.

In story, we lose ourselves to the beauty of another’s story. We explore the memories and thoughts of people long dead. Words open our souls to human thought and feeling beyond our own, in a way that an image cannot. They connect us to human nature and to an entire history.

#5. Words awaken our imagination.

Taking a picture of a waterfall or a sunset is a good thing. Writing a Facebook status about your wonderful evening with friends is good. But read these words:

Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. (Jack Kerouac)

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (Shakespeare)

Precious are the dead that lie there, every stone over them speaks of such burning life in the past, of such passionate faith in their work, their truth, their struggle and their science, that I know I shall fall on the ground and kiss those stones and weep over them; though I’m convinced in my heart that it’s long been nothing but a graveyard. And I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

And he knew, also, what the old man was thinking as his tears flowed, and he, Rieux, thought it too: that a loveless world is a dead world, and always there comes an hour when one is weary of prisons, of one’s work, and of devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart. (Albert Camus)

Reading such words, one cannot help feeling a connection beyond the sensory to timeless truths explored, forgotten, and explored again. Eteraz’s article references Stendhal, who once said writing holds a mirror to the world. Eteraz surmises this “is no longer appropriate (especially as smartphone screens reflect better).”

But perhaps we have merely been entranced looking in one mirror – a fun, but rather pixelated one. And with time, perhaps our imaginations will seek out those inky, mysterious, beautiful word mirrors once again.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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