“Compared to the spoken word, a picture is a pitiful thing, indeed.”
“Those who say ‘A picture is worth a thousand words…’ have never read The Declaration of Independence, or The Gettysburg Address, or Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”
I was having a rather spirited conversation last week with a coworker whose background is education. We were discussing the advent of technology both in the classroom and beyond. She maintained that college graduates should be required to take classes on technology. They should have to be skilled in things like Adobe and Movie Maker. “Because,” as she stated, “YouTube and TedX are more popular now than books.’
My response is that this is very sad.
I’m not against technology. I’d better not be, since I work in the IT department at a major university. But I’m against the way technology keeps lowering the bar on our classrooms and, ultimately, on our imagination. And without imagination, we will die quickly.
Technology can turn an abstract fact into a two-minute movie clip that entertains and informs. The down side is that once the image is embedded into the psyche, there is no need for the imagination that the words could elicit.
I read the Declaration of Independence and my imagination takes over. I imagine that blistering hot day in July, 1776 when those fifty-five men signed their lives away and a nation was born. I’ve seen movies about it, but they pale in comparison to what my mind provided.
I’ve read and analyzed Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for a college course. Reading it. Committing those words to my heart and thinking about the grammar, the punctuation…the faces that formed and disappeared in my imagination while I read it…that inspired more action from me than any newsreel ever could.
The pain and yearning in Danny Saunders soul in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” was more real and more desperate and more heartbreaking that Robbie Benson’s wonderful performance could possibly portray.
What happened? Why do we take our lexicon and reduce it to 140 characters and “LOL’s” and “OMG’s?” What happened to poems, and sonnets, and great song lyrics?
I well recall the early days of MTV and the lament from great lyricists like Springsteen and Cohen. They feared that in the very instant you attach a visual to a song lyric; you remove the internal images that the song created for each listener. Images so personal and individual that they cannot be numbered. Every song produces a different image for every listener. That is the magic of a well crafted sentence. And that art is lost.
There are still great word crafters out there. Still writers who paint with the vocabulary the way Monet worked with watercolor. But the audience has changed. In a never-ending effort to lower the bar and make excuses for why some kid “can’t learn” we have boiled the hard, arduous, difficult work of learning down to 140 characters on Twitter, a clever 3-minute video on YouTube, or a meme.
I read Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and was amazed that Hugo took 134 pages to describe the cathedral. The cathedral! Potok spent page after page describing Hasidic life and culture. Even songs have changed. The opening lines to “Thunder Road” bear this out:
“The screen door slams. Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the floor
As the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you, only…”
To think that those words were penned by a 25 year old, then-unknown kid from New Jersey.
He didn’t just wake up one morning, talking that way. Bruce was educated in the old school. He read great authors. He listened to great records. His foundation wasn’t 140 characters and some smiley faces. It was hard-won. And when the time came to write thousands of songs with incredible lyrics, he was ready for the task.
Who is writing this now? Who says things like Bruce said in “Thunder Road” or Cohen said in “Hallelujah” or Willy DeVille said in “Heaven Stood Still?”
Who is the next Forbert or Hiatt, Or Mullins or Elias?
Who is writing the next great short stories influenced by Flannery O’Connor? Or Potok? Or Hugo? Who is learning to speak great words because they read great words thereby giving them the internal resources to write great words?
All you have to do is go to YouTube to see who the next clever film makers are. But are they moving anyone?
When I was nine, (as I have recounted before) I read Gene Hill’s column in Field and Stream for the first time. It began a lifelong love for words. He wrote of his old bird dog and how she was too old to hunt anymore but she would still come and sit by his side near the fireplace, lay her chin on his leg and look at him plaintively until he relented and scratched her head for a minute. The image made me want to be a writer.
It wasn’t a Tweet. It wasn’t a clever video clip. It was a story. A well-crafted, wonderfully descriptive story that let me concoct the corresponding images on the canvas of my imagination.
The dog that I saw, was a beautiful old Springer. Liver and white, with some gray beginning to show around her muzzle. She waddled a bit because she’d grown stiff with the years. Her coat was shiny and thick. Gene Hill was on a comfortable leather couch. Wearing old, friendly blue jeans that were aged to perfection. His pipe lent the aroma of Captain Black to the scent of the fireplace. The old dog came over slowly and softly and let out the gentlest sigh when she laid her chin on his knee.
As Hill stroked the crown of her head, between her red-brown ears, he thought of the ducks, and the pheasants she’d retrieved. He remembered when she was just a pup. How much training time he'd spent with her. He thought of all the years they ridden together in the pickup truck.
He caught himself with a lump in his throat because he figured, she was healthy, but even so she only had a few more years left. Four. Maybe six if she was lucky. He wasn’t ready for that.
Gene Hill didn’t write any of that in the original story. I imagined that while I read his words. Because he took a lot more than 140 characters. I have no idea what that wonderful old dog looked like in real life. I do know what she looked like in my heart. I don’t know if Gene Hill smoked Captain Black. I’m pretty sure I recall that he smoked a pipe.
But his words fertilized my imagination and I that is how I saw him.
And that is what I lament these days. That is what I fear is lacking in education, and in our individual conversations, and in society.
Words can inspire. They lend themselves to creativity. They foster imagination.
And they are vanishing.