Wednesday, September 12, 2007

E-mail, The Book

What could the world possibly need less than a book about how to write e-mail? How about a full-page review of that book in the New York Review of Books? Janet Malcolm's piece on David Shipley and Will Schwalbe's Send is rather disappointing, it turns out--I had been hoping she might whip herself into an entertaining froth of gratuitous overanalysis, a la Nicholson Baker (and, by the way, what happened to Baker's home page? He seems to have thrown in the towel on it)...but no. We get a summary and a few obvious observations about the form. Ah, well.

I suppose one could argue that we need a blog post about a book review of an e-mail guide least of all--but I can't help reacting with a ragged, bloggy sigh to one thing Malcolm says--or rather two things, that are really one thing. Here's the first:

College students who send outrageous email requests to their teachers (addressed "Hiya Professor!") or college applicants who write long, self-satisfied emails to admissions officers [and here Malcolm quotes Send] "seem painfully unaware that the person they are writing to (and annoying) is the same person who could be offering them a place in a freshman class or grading them at term's end." The poor lambs don't know any better, and Send is good at setting them straight.

The second thing comes in the next column. Malcolm again quotes Send on the subject of exclamation points: its authors believe that "the better your word choice the less need you will have for this form of shorthand." And she responds: "So this is crux of the matter: Email is a medium of bad writing. Poor word choice is the norm--as is tone deafness."

I don't mean to make a big deal out of this, but isn't this kind of tut-tutting of the young and casual just a bit embarrassing? I am sure that Malcolm considers this review to be little more than a lark, but I think we often reveal ourselves most when we're trying the least, and here Malcolm sounds like one of those decrepit old Republican congressmen who wonder if perhaps they ought to look into getting an "internet web site."

These students she and the Send authors are referring to: I see them every day, and answer dozens of their emails every week. But I don't ever recall being bothered by their insoucience. They are, after all, the young. And as for bad writing--the email, like the letter, is an intimate expression of personality (even when you accidentally reply-all to the executive board), and should no more be bound by the rules of grammar and punctuation than a whispered conversation. Who cares if lousy writing is the default epistolary mode?

What Shipley and Schwalbe seem to be talking about is the formal use and misuse of e-mail (at least it appears that they are--I haven't read the book), and what I wish Malcolm had talked about is the extent to which the formal and the informal have come to overlap, particularly on the internet. E-mail, it seems to me, is at the nexus of the two, and as such is a fascinating cultural phenomenon, the meeting of the old and the new, the personal and the professional, the workplace and the home. Why not talk about that?

Instead, Malcolm seems eager for a time when "email, too, stops being a big deal," and is no more fraught with worry than the telephone. Of course, for most of us, it never was a big deal, or hasn't been for a long time. It would have been interesting for Malcolm to have made a big deal of it nonetheless.

10 comments:

rmellis said...

Students are rather insoucient in person, as well. I recall one who came to my house to talk about her new job... and sold me a knife set!

jrlennon said...

Yeah, but you have to admit, those knives are awesome. Still sharp after what, five hundred loaves of bread?

jrlennon said...

Oh, one thing I forgot to mention about this piece, which I can't find a good place to shoehorn in to the main text: Malcolm writes that "letter-writing was never fraught activity that e-mail writing is."

Wha?! Letter writing was far more fraught than e-mail will ever be, as every Victorian novel will be happy to inform you. When you send your climactic, wrong-headed e-mail, it's over in a flash. You're ruined, and can relax in your bed of ashes. Whereas, when the poison letter hit the bottom of the mailbox, you knew that it would be days before your mistake became real--and you had to spend those days on epistolary death row.

jrlennon said...

"never THE fraught activity," I meant

bigscarygiraffe said...

WhoaWhoa. For some reason, I feel the need to stand up for the insouciants in the world (aka, The Young). But I won't, because I am young, and inevitably, insouciant. Concision and carefulness are important, but they suck...Especially when youth has you all hyped up on idealism and eager feel-goodness.

5 Red Pandas said...

My mom makes me ghost write her e-mails to a teacher of hers and every week I threaten to end the lies because I want her to practice writing in English. I also don't want to take dictation from her because it's quite annoying. She's paranoid that I'm condensing her words and that I'm not being polite enough- she'd be the worst boss in the world.

Letter writing is definitely more fraught than e-mail. My mom dictated a letter she was writing to a friend she'd made in the Dominican Republic. Then she took the letter to school and had a classmate translate it for her into Spanish so I could later type it up. Wow. My mom's a huge pain in the ass. What I want to know is why she never writes any letters in Chinese, the language she's most literate in. It's like when she decides to order in English at a Chinese restaurant- it boggles my mind. It's the time to show off and get special treatment and she goes and plays dumb. Drives me insane.

jrlennon said...

Maybe mom's proud of her English and glad to get to use it! Or perhaps "General Tso's Chicken" is an untranslatable American idiom...

5 Red Pandas said...

But she just dictates in English! She's not actually practicing her writing, which is what she needs to do.

Don't get me started on the struggle to find English equivalents for Chinese idioms. These sessions make my mother wonder if I'm retarded (a phrase she actually uses once in a while).

This is why I don't teach ESL. I don't have the patience, and it reminds me too much of my mother.

rmellis said...

Hey, we LOVE the young around here.

the individual voice said...

I just read the review as well and suspected that the book might actually be more interesting than the review, as someone who has made major e-mail bloopers and appreciates that blogs can be revised after you press Publish, but e-mails cannot be retrieved once you detonate the SEND button.