Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

So much writing, is anyone reading?

By Suntosh Pillay

It started innocently enough. But then again, I should have known better. My parents always said don’t go into strange places with strange people. But I couldn’t resist. Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in the online jungle called Amazon. Special offers were popping up in every corner. Books that I’ve never considered reading suddenly seemed like a life-or-death purchase. Glowing reviews (most likely from the author’s drinking bud) were convincing me that without this 400-page door-stopper my knowledge on this obscure topic will forever be inadequate. Click. Click. KA-Ching! Credit cards — the opium of the internet masses.

From the jungle to the desert, Kalahari did the same. It lured me in, flickered its Christmas specials and free delivery offers, and somehow figured out that I need (need?!) a new esoteric Robin Sharma book, curiously titled The Secret Letters of the Monk Who Sold his Ferrari.

If you ask me (you didn’t, but humour me), any sort of self-help that becomes a multimillion-dollar franchise only teaches us one thing: the path to riches is through writing. It must be. Don’t listen to what novelists tell us about how there‚Äôs no money in writing and you can’t get a bestseller in our visually-oriented, alliterate world (alliterate — you can read, but choose not to. This is even sadder than being illiterate).

There’s such a stupendous amount of writing that is out there, online, in bookshops, in libraries, everywhere. We are surrounded by words, in every nook and cranny of our existence there is someone who has something to say and is getting paid by someone else to write it out loud. I don’t use words like stupendous lightly; after all, why use big words when a diminutive one will do.

Paul Silvia, a psychologist, has tapped into this market of frantic typists, and written How to Write a Lot, a 149-page “practical, light hearted, and encouraging book” mainly aimed at researchers who are struggling to balance the publish-or-perish mandate of academic life.

Beyond this, psychological science has extended the utility of writing, and so great is this human desire for text, that even the traditional “talking cure” is morphing into the writing cure. Studies are aplenty on how expressive writing promotes emotional wellbeing and mental health. Some psychotherapists even write letters to their patients to enable the process to become more open and reflective and other sorts of warm and fuzzy things.

If you search the American Psychological Association website for resources on writing, you get about 2 600 articles. Just to be sure, the website kindly directs you to an additional 37 410 articles on their premium databases.

What would happen, I wonder, if everybody just stopped writing, and we all began seriously reading? Would we discover that everything we need to (want to?) know is out there, lost in the abyss of knowledge that is stored everywhere, yet nowhere? Would we miss the junk that’s spewed out on a daily basis by anyone with an opinion?

Will the academic world be rudely awakened to discover that every fledging hypothesis they plan on researching once they finish learning how to write by reading another book on writing, has been explored and stored in silent corners of our dark and mysterious repositories of publications?

Perhaps there is merit in the global democratisation of idea broadcasting, which has disrupted power relations in quite dramatic ways, especially Wikipedia, YouTube, and open-source journals. But the politics of content is never clean.

While we debate the Secrecy Bill, American activists are protesting a new proposed law, in which the US could force internet providers to block any website on suspicion of violating copyright or trademark legislation, or even failing to sufficiently police their users’ activities. Since most major websites have their hosts and hardware located in the US, their blacklist would hinder the internet for all of us. “Save the Internet!” read the petitions.

Could we ever live in a post-internet (no-internet) world, where the boundaries of authority and expertise are supposedly more clearly defined? Or has the exponential pace of textual output reached a point of no-return, created a world in which we cannot dare to imagine not having as many books, articles, letters, newspapers, magazines, blogs, websites, forums, journals, novels and other printed symbols of our existence?

Suntosh Pillay is a clinical psychologist who writes independently on social issues

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  • Am I a writer?
  • Is psychology serving humanity?
  • Are we freeing our imagination for social good?
  • Writing about not writing