The Irascible ProfessorSM
by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - January 10, 2012: From Parchment to Attachment. Guest commentary by Devyani Borade.
'To be or not to wee, that is the question.'
'Er, that's be.'
'That should be not to be, not not to wee.'
'What the hell is thyself talking about?'
'Thou said... ah, never mind. Go on reading, will thee?'
'Right. Moving on. I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word would narrow up thy soul, freeze thy young brood, make thy two eyes, like scars, start from their spheres, thy knitted and combined locks to fart, and each particular hair... '
'Um, that’s harrow not narrow, blood not brood, stars not scars, knotted not knitted and part not, er, fart.'
'Quite. Look, perhaps thee had better make me another copy.'
'But that could take me another three-and-a-half years!'
William Shakespeare hangs his head in gloom and withdraws to brood over the tedium of making another copy in long hand. 'If only,' he reflects bitterly, 'Mother had paid more attention to my handwriting!'
'Oh, and use a softer quill, will thee? Thy present one scratches and tears thy thin parchment. It's bad for the typesetting,' reminds the editor cheerfully.
Shakespeare scowls and returns home. He holds aloft a new quill -- 'Gosh, I sure wish I had a fountain pen!' -- dips the quill thoughtfully into the inkwell and begins writing. I am thy father's spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk this world... He stops. 'Forsooth, but I do believe another word for world would be better. But what? Universe? Cosmos? Alas, if only there was a dictionary!' he wails in despair. 'My descendants don't realise how easy their lives are going to be. Oh well, I'll have to coin another new word myself. And then they blame me for writing cryptic verse.'
Cut to 1862 and Leo Tolstoy is scribbling furiously in the light of a dimly burning candle. At such close quarters, its searing heat has covered his forehead in a permanent patina of sweat, making the great novel a true work of toil. Suddenly, in the middle of a particularly vivid war scene, he curses out loud and blows frantically on the paper where bits and blobs of melted wax from the candle have dropped, burning holes in the story. 'Ah, to have been born a hundred years later,' he mutters ruefully. 'At least the electric bulb would have been invented by then.'
He crumples the paper into a ball and flings it into the fireplace. A small flare and a extra puff of smoke heralds its demise. Somewhere high overhead in the unheeded ozone layer, a few molecules quietly oxidize and disappear, and a tiny hole becomes a fraction larger.
Months later when the manuscript is complete, he binds all the folios together in a brown paper package wrapped with a bit of string and sends for a reliable messenger. The classic is on its way to the printing press. 'This sheaf of papers is loose,' he warns the young lad. 'And they will scatter all over the country in the wind. Keep them together carefully. There are so many of them that even I may not be able to sort them later in the right order.’
Advance to the turn of the century as we visit Arthur C. Doyle who is desperately trying to come to grips with his manuscript’s length. He puts himself in his characters' shoes and imagines what they would have done in the circumstances.
'One two three four five six seven eight…'
'What are you doing, Doctor?'
'I'm counting the words in this story, Holmes.'
'Elementary, my dear Watson. Just count the number of words on a line and multiply that by the number of lines on a page times the number of pages.'
'That’s sublime, Holmes! Your mind is like an automatic counting machine!'
'Not at all. Just a simple matter of using the grey cells.'
Fast forward to the early forties where Agatha Christie is hunched over her typewriter, fingers busy clickety-clacking away at an array of keys set in a strange sequence. Instead of A, B, C, D, E, the alphabet starts Q, W, E, R, T, Y. An egg-faced head decorated with the most enormous moustaches he had laid eyes on swam into his vision as he... She pauses mid-sentence, cocks her head and reads the typed characters intently. Then she gnashes her teeth, snatches the paper out and throws it into a corner. Her mouth settles into a determined grim line, her arm thwacks the typewriter's carriage back left viciously and the pristine whiteness of a new sheet of paper is marred with another handful of black letters. At first glance, all he saw was a fussy little man with an egg-shaped head and enormous moustaches. The well-developed muscles in her right arm ripple with years of having to force the carriage return back to the next line. Over time, dark smudges appear at various spots on her person as she handles reams of carbon paper for multiple copies. Later, her day's work done, she switches off the overhead incandescent lamp and lies down on the bed. For a few minutes, everything is silent. Then a steady clickety-clack staccato starts up somewhere inside her head as she thinks about the next day's chapter. She can even distinguish between the sound the G key makes from that of the V. 'I hope I don't make another typo,' she mumbles in her sleep. 'I'm running out of ribbon.'
Jump to present day. Robert Langdon has just been to the Louvre and seen the Mona Lisa. He is having trouble describing its beauty with appropriate adjectives. 'Exquisite. Gorgeous. Pulchritudinous. Resplendent. No no! How common these words are. I wish I could invent a new one myself. Shakespeare didn't know how good he had it!' Reluctantly he settles on an inadequate description and goes on. His fingers fly nimbly over the ergonomically designed keyboard. The perfectly formed Times New Roman twelve-point characters align themselves at evenly spaced distances and effortlessly change from bold to italics at the touch of a noiseless button. Occasionally with green wavy underlines Microsoft Word® informs him of a better way to structure a fragment of a sentence. There isn't a shred of paper in sight, nor are there signs of inkpots or table lamps. His false ceiling contains strategically placed and remotely controlled lighting that is uniformly monochromatic and pleasing to the eye. Dan Brown’s person is patently clear of any smudges or blots of any kind. In front of him, his setup of monitor, keyboard, mouse, computer, printer, scanner, modem, webcam, speakers, CD burner and fax machine are laid out in a grey-white labyrinth of silicon and plastic. His daily quota of five thousand words later (he knows this accurately because Microsoft Word® counts the characters, words, lines, paragraphs and pages with ridiculous ease) he runs a "spell-check" and corrects the errors that are indicated on the screen.
There is a slight nip in the air that makes him reflect sadly for a moment on the absence of a quaint fireplace in his modern penthouse apartment. Then he shrugs and switches on the central heating and with a low hum, the air conditioning unit comes into play. Warm and cosy now, he prints out a chapter and settles back to read it. A few minutes later, he frowns, picks up a highlighter pen, draws thick lines through several sentences and sighs. He reaches to his side, starts up the cross-cut shredder and its low whining rotor blades neatly cuts the page into tiny pieces and bins the chaff to be recycled in due course, without causing air pollution. He re-boots his computer and settles down to a revision.
Weeks pass. The end is nigh. Brown selects the latest version of his document, connects to the Internet and zips off an email message to his publisher, with a copy to his editor. The bestseller-to-be tags along as an electronic attachment, broken down into hundreds and thousands of small packets of information, scattered and distributed all over the network, each taking a different and unknown route to its destination, to eventually be re-assembled at the recipients' end. The novel is accepted with a few minor changes, the contract is signed on a pay-by-word basis ('Dear Sir, please note that the word count is actually 85,639 and not 85,500 as you have mentioned in your acceptance letter'). It then is dispatched to the publishing house for advertising, marketing and professional production.
Enter Devyani Borade, also known as Me -- writer of the moment, author of the future. Dictaphones are passé. I make reminders to myself of story ideas using my cutting-edge mobile phone's handy voice recording system. I use state-of-the-art Kindle technology to read my online e-books. Courtesy the TWIG -- Thesaurus/Wikipedia/Google.com -- network the entire world's knowledge and information is at my fingertips: with a click of a button I know the spelling, meaning, pronunciation and usage of any word in any language. Thanks to my trendy Online Submissions Manager I keep track of which submissions I have made to which magazines, when a response is overdue, and receive alerts of which theme's deadline is coming up. My subscriptions to various writing resources and newsletters ensures that I am always kept up-to-date with the latest in the publishing world as well as provided with outlets for my creativity by participation in thousands of contests. With an Oracle database, I maintain an account of payments, subscriptions and taxes, I know which magazine has paid me the highest word rate, what my acceptance-to-rejection ratio is and by exactly how much PayPal® has become richer because of me. I can predict the precise time, down to the date, when I will have earned enough to buy my dream house and be warned when I had better make a quick sale to keep my bank balance out of the red. Using Cloud Computing, I have access to incomparable processing power and Twitter® allows me to call upon and harness the best minds in the business from the comfort of my couch at home.
In short, everything is near darn perfect. The only real trouble is a somewhat less-than-virtuoso skill in actually writing. Now if only Bill Gates would come up with a Literary Brain 2010 ™…!
© 2012, Devyani Borade.
Devyani Borade is a free-lance writer who lives in England. She holds a degree in electronics and telecommunications from Mumbai University in India. More of her writing can be found on her website, Verbolatry.
The Irascible Professor comments: Devyani makes an important point, all the technology in the world will not make a person a good writer. In fact, it seems to the IP that all of our marvelous technology has somehow made most of us worse writers than we were without it.
The Irascible Professor invites your .