What are the four most important words in the resurrection of American popular culture? I know what they are and will reveal them in time.
What are the most annoying words and phrases we hear on a daily basis? I know these, too. But again, patience.
The answers relate to my point—no, my manifesto: We need to rediscover the English language, and literate expression, and reading.
They're all under assault by the techno-monster, who waggles a seductive finger at young minds, at all minds, and whispers, "Put that boring book down, and come over to my side. I have the Internet! ... I have an iPod, texting, tweeting! ... I have a TV with 500 freaking channels!"
And off we go into the digital swamp, total stimulation, all input all the time, and it requires nothing from us other than sitting passively on the hind parts and absorbing it.
The consequences are far-reaching. It's creating a post-literate world, argues Tom Bertonneau, a literature professor at State University of New York at Oswego.
In a recent online essay, he described what it's like to teach students who've maintained a marginal relationship to the printed word for their first 20 years. Now, in his class, they're forced to analyze texts such as Homer's Odyssey.
One student wanted to write that Homer's stories took place in the Bronze Age. Instead, the poor kid repeatedly wrote "the LaBronze Age."
This puzzled Bertonneau, until his wife explained the student probably was thinking of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball star LeBron James. So we know this lad spends too much time watching ESPN.
Be wary of the tube! If you prize the language, tame the idiot box! One edition of SportsCenter can seem as long as "the LaBronze Age," if you count the cliches: "Yes, Bill, he just couldn't get ... back on track ... and reach the ... next level ... because he didn't have the necessary ... skill set ... to really ... dial in ... the way he did ... back in the day. But ... it is what it is."
What!? Of course it is what it is! It can't be what it isn't!
Hemingway's bell tolls in my brain every time I hear these phrases. Topping my list is the incredibly annoying my bad, as in, "Sorry, I backed over your cat. My bad."
And go ballistic, as in, "You backed over my cat!?! I'm trying not to ... go ballistic ... here!"
Under the bus ... as in, "Well, I could have thrown the cat under the bus!"
"Oh, well. It's all good. Have a nice day."
I'm convinced these clichés would fade from use if we spent half as much time every day reading as we do watching the tube—on average, three-plus hours—and otherwise bowing before the monster. We wouldn't have an apostrophe calamity in which, it seems, the entire population has lost the ability to distinguish between its and it's.
We wouldn't have grammar vigilantes Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, Dartmouth grads who traveled the country correcting—sometimes with, ahem, questionable legality—mistakes in public signs.
In describing his Typo Hunt Across America tour to the Boston Globe, Deck called such errors a "plague," adding: "I figured Steinbeck had his dog and Kerouac had his drugs. I'd have my typos."
They're everywhere, evidence of a culture sinking under the weight of those who can't read—Arizona's functional illiteracy rate is 20 percent, California's 23 percent—and especially under those who can read, but don't.
Fearing I might be falling into an anti-modernist fog, I searched out smart people who disagree with me.
UA Journalism Professor Susan Knight thinks students are actually reading more now than they were 20 years ago. "They're reading a lot on the Internet," she says. "Now, whether they're reading whole books, I'm uncertain about that."
Tom Willard has been teaching literature at the UA for decades and says that while technology has certainly created more distractions for students, overall, he welcomes its innovations.
"There's probably more reading now than (Marshall) McLuhan would've imagined back in the '60s," he says.
Neither Knight nor Willard believe that blogging, texting, Facebook and their like have impacted writing skills, good or bad.
I don't buy it. Look around. Watch students emerge from class. The first item they reach for is their cell or iPod. What have I missed?! ... Quick! ... I need input!
At lunch, they're not in a corner eating a sandwich and reading. They're texting and keeping an ear out for the bing-bang-bong of their cell, because it always leads onward, forward, to the next ... thing.
Whatever it is, it has to be better!
This need for speed is like heroin—and books are the antidote.
Think of this through simple time arithmetic, as the novelist Philip Roth did in a CNN interview in 2007: "It feels like a dying moment for literary culture in my own country—but you can't have computers and iPods and Blackberries ... and have time to sit for two or three hours with a book."
Only great readers can be great writers, and when those who don't read try to write, the result is what Bertonneau describes as tortured prose reflecting "dim and cloudy thinking" that will "one day define the prevailing mental climate of our society."
He believes schools fail kids by over-fostering feelings and baseless pride. "I mean to argue," writes Bertonneau, "that a deficient but entrenched pedagogy based on 'progressive' theories of education has betrayed students by refusing to grant them the dignified status of real mentality, of adult awareness, and of literate sensibility."
The solution is to rebuild the reading culture, one skull at a time. Remember when your mother sat you down to read Goodnight Moon or Curious George?
In addition to trying to get you to sleep already, she was teaching you how to be away from the clamor of ... everything, encouraging you to think independently about the characters in stories, to laugh at them and root for them, to condemn them and shake figurative fists when they misbehave, and cheer when they pull through in the end.
Adults need to do this as much as kids. There's great benefit to dropping out for a few hours, achieving a rare state of quiet ... in learning to be alone.
That's why I believe the four most important words for the resurrection of the culture are ... once upon a time.