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Editorial

The Age of the Essay 286

Posted by michael
from the 500-words-or-more dept.
bluFox writes "Paul Graham, has just published a new article on the English literature and role of Essays. It is not connected to lisp or languages or hackers for a change, but still feels like a continuation of his earlier articles."
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The Age of the Essay

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  • Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kombat (93720) <kombat@kombat.org> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:28PM (#10181565) Homepage
    This is another area where the Internet has had a clear impact on a topic. Whereas it used to be like pulling teeth to get kids to write and submit essays, now you can't turn a corner on the web without running into one blog or another, loaded with essays on a wide range of controversial topics. While the Internet has had a clearly detrimental effect on our spelling abilities, I think it has had a correspondingly positive impact on our willingness and enthusiasm to express opinions of all kinds. Even sites like Slashdot are loaded with rants on all sorts of topics. Heck, I have a positive-karma modifier on trolls and flamebait posts, just because those threads are often the ones with the most spirited, passionate discussions. :)
  • Hmm... the term (Score:3, Insightful)

    by winkydink (650484) * <sv.dude@gmail.com> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:28PM (#10181573) Homepage Journal
    "apropos of nothing" comes to mind
  • by Nos. (179609) <andrew@NospaM.thekerrs.ca> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:30PM (#10181588) Homepage
    And I agree with most of it, especially the point about taking a position and dending that. I did that a few times in both high school and university. Did well on some and failed on others. I tried to take positions that I did not agree with as it was more interesting to try and combat my own beliefs on an issue than to rehash a position so many others had done before. Now like I said, I didn't agree with the stance I took, I did it as a learning excercise, for example, I did one on heros and chose hitler. Now I did not try and defend the murder of countless jewish people, instead I looked at how Germany improved under his rule. I learned a lot about Hitler and his rise to power and some of the good things he did for Germany. Of course, the things he did wrong far outweighed the good, but it was a good way to learn something about our past. Everyone else in the class did somewhat easier things like Regan helping to bring down the Berlin wall and such.
  • by rokzy (687636) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:31PM (#10181602)
    ...is that they usually seem to be about filling out a point to meet a word limit and not about getting to the point.

    I think this arises because "the point" is usually nothing profound in itself so the only thing you can do to stand out is blabber on in a particularly well way.

    Being a scientist I'm necessarily biased about anything that can be called an "essay". The closest thing in science is probably a review paper but that also should be as concise as possible.

    I blame schools.
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by smclean (521851) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:32PM (#10181630) Homepage
    On what do you base your assertion that "the Internet has had a clearly detrimental effect on our spelling abilities". I don't see how having to use text as a communications medium could do anything but help spelling abilities.

    I think we just notice that more people can't spell worth a damn now that they are forced to attempt to spell in order to function in their job, social life, whatever they use the internet for.

  • by e9th (652576) <{e9th} {at} {tupodex.com}> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:33PM (#10181643)
    "...that writing is made to seem boring and senseless."

    Writing complete sentences will improve your essay.

  • Fact (Score:5, Insightful)

    by scottennis (225462) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:35PM (#10181677) Homepage
    The better you become at reading, the better you become at writing. It only made sense to combine the two disciplines by requiring writing to be about things you read.

    Now, having said that, I believe that once a student has achieved proficiency at writing about what they read, they should be encouraged to write about other things as well.

    To quote Thoreau, "How vain it is to sit down to write when one has never stood up to live."

    As to the question "Why is this on Slashdot?" I have a degree in English Literature. When I took my first job in IT, my boss told me that most IT people were an inch wide and a mile deep. Perhaps the person who posted this is trying to help some of us nerds broaden our horizons!

    To quote one of the nerds from the movie "War Games" "Remember when you told me to tell you when you were acting rudely and insensitively? Well you're doing it now!"

  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatman@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:36PM (#10181691) Homepage Journal
    While Blogs in general are questionable, I do think that the internet is having a positive effect on literacy and writing ability. At the very least, putting communication in written form forces people to learn to communicate clearly and concisely.

    As for spelling, I think you'll find that it has always been an issue. The only reason why it has become more apparent, is that internet users fail to take the time for a proper proofread. Not that I'm about to start proofreading every message I write. It simply takes too long for the very time-sensitive communications inherent in the internet.
  • Now I know... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by RAMMS+EIN (578166) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:37PM (#10181696) Homepage Journal
    Now I know why I like Paul Graham's essays so much. You read the essay, and you follow along with the thoughts. You never feel forced in a certain direction, or at least not for a long time. Eventually, the essay often manages to convince you of something, but it's not by force. It's because you draw your own conclusions, that may or may not agree with the author's.
  • by twifosp (532320) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:48PM (#10181836)
    I think that the essay rules ruined the essay.

    In school we focus on the rules, in terms of how an essay should be structured, and what it should contain.

    Rules like spelling and grammar ARE important, but not as important as the content. I'd rather read an easy by a brilliant person with English as a second langauge, who doesn't write very well, opposed to an essay written perfectly by a random bloke.

    This is where the English class ruined the essay. It was graded on those rules, and seldom on content.

    They should focus on free thinking, creative writing, as much, if not more than the structure.
  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:53PM (#10181894) Homepage
    In the essay he asked why we find misfortune funny.

    I like Heinlein's answer to that question: "We laugh because it hurts to much to cry.".

    Basically Heinlein was of the opinion (and I agree) that it is ONLY misfortune that we find funny. That the laugh, the joke etc. are coping mechanisms we have developed to let us deal with bad things.

  • by dirvish (574948) <dirvish AT foundnews DOT com> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:53PM (#10181896) Homepage Journal
    Makes me wonder if people will look back hundreds of years from now and wonder... 'What the hell were they thinking writing in that horrible format?' Kinda like I do now with some of the weird medieval writing styles. I wonder if English teachers ever reflect on sort of things before they make their students write yet another essay.
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by JPelorat (5320) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:54PM (#10181914)
    Because they take shortcuts, use stupid abbreviations that take just as much time to type as the real word, and generally type in a 'stream of consciousness' style that apparently gives more credibility for each new typo or misspelling.

    And they get pissed off at anyone who tries to correct their spelling. "it dosent mater eveywun can stil understnad me bitch fuck off cocksucking whore", I believe is the standard response. Funny how they always seem to get the swear words perfect though.

    You're right, we do notice it more. But the primary problem is that hardly anyone takes pride or care in what they do anymore.

    "yeah whatevah it's just the internet who cares"
  • by UserGoogol (623581) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @04:55PM (#10181923)
    Firstly, Paul Graham is both a geek and a nerd. But more importantly, in its purest form, nerd-dom is nothing more than socially maladjusted intellectualism. His essay is talking about how essays are a great way to think about ideas. Therefore, his essay is nerdy, therefore, it's appropriate to talk about it on Slashdot.
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Billy the Mountain (225541) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:00PM (#10181983) Journal
    When people take shortcuts and use stupid abbreviations, that signifies that the written language is evolving.

    As pedants, it's our role to resist this change at all costs!

    BTM
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by dasmegabyte (267018) <das@OHNOWHATSTHISdasmegabyte.org> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:04PM (#10182025) Homepage Journal
    Some of us 'bloggers write EXCLUSIVELY essays. I have never written a post about my dog or music that was not speculative and insightful, or at the very least long winded and pretentious.

    Then again, I majored in essays...and I can't give them up. Shit, that's why I've got over 3000 longwinded Slashdot comments, as well.

    In fact, that's something the Internet has that talk radio and TV panels do not: you can take as much time and as much space as you need to to be an effective disputant. Can you sum up your idea into a thirty second soundbite? Great. But if it takes you 10,000 words...the Internet doesn't give a shit...post 'em if you got 'em.
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:3, Insightful)

    by JPelorat (5320) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:05PM (#10182035)
    Shortcuts like ppl, thx, plz? And i herd their wuz sum diferenses beetween surten werds to. Oral colloquialisms in a visual medium just don't work. It's a one-way transfer only.

    The Internet may not be hurting anyone's learning ability, but it is certainly not *helping* anyone to learn how to spell. Not when so many just don't care what their words look like or how they use them.
  • by eln (21727) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:07PM (#10182057) Homepage
    I think there are a couple of good reasons to study ancient literature:

    1.) To foster an appreciation for literature as a whole by looking at its history. Many modern works of literature contain references to earlier works, and are often directly inspired by them.

    2.) The idea is to teach students how to analyze literature in general. The hope is that you will take the skills you learned analyzing Shakespeare and apply them to other works.

    3.) When teaching analysis, it's a lot easier if you're teaching a text that has been analyzed thousands of times by thousands of other people already. It makes it less likely people will think you're just making stuff up if many others throughout history support your analysis.

    In essence, the point of learning Shakespeare is not solely to learn Shakespeare, but to learn skills of analysis that will serve you in many aspects of your life. A large part of learning is simply learning how to learn.
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kafka93 (243640) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:12PM (#10182127)
    Your use of "anymore" -- a compound word whose use is unorthodox but generally accepted -- is a good example of the way in which the English language is a fluid, changing thing. And the Internet has played its part in this. And since written language in particular has generally followed attempts to codify spoken language, it shouldn't be too surprising - or too disturbing - when its use by greater numbers of people leads to changes in linguistic trends. And, after all, the average reader would probably have a harder time reading Chaucer than he or she would reading a blog or an IRC channel.

    That's not to say that careless language is a good thing, of course; but we should be careful when it comes to railing too much against different usage of language on the basis that it's "incorrect".
  • by jared9900 (231352) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:12PM (#10182136)
    That's largely because the essay in English class was to exercise grammar and vocabulary (which includes spelling btw). It is nice to read essays with good content, but if the grammar, use of terms and spelling are horribly incorrect then it's completely useless to most readers.
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:5, Insightful)

    by dasmegabyte (267018) <das@OHNOWHATSTHISdasmegabyte.org> on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:23PM (#10182281) Homepage Journal
    The thing is, the people who are poor spellers, have poor grammar and who use poor organizational skills don't matter so much on the internet. Just like in the real world, people on the Internet detect the difference between a well thought out point and a bunch of mindless rambling based on the coherence of the argument. If your argument is well spelled out, understandable and flows organically from point to point, you'll get more links, more mod points, etc.

    What the internet allows that the real world does not is a chance for people who aren't naturally good at organizing ideas to make themselves heard regardless. Many people who visit open forums like Slashdot et. al. are much better at explaining opinions than they are at making them...which is why so many highly moderated posts begin with "What I think you mean is," and so on. This means that poorly written posts that have valid points are not necessarily ignored...they are quite often embellished so that the validity of points raised by good thinker is strengthened by those who are good writers.

    Incidentally, this bolstering of good ideas with good language is in my opinion the first step towards making an important viewpoint into a political lynchpin: finding a way to explain the viewpoint and the urgency of it in an understandable (if not completely accurate) way. Bush Jr has (some would say unfortunately) had great success in his political career due to the bolstering he receives from his speech writers -- lord knows he couldn't survive in an oratorical vacuum. Bush's camp almost seems to have take cues from the internet -- they've realized that not speaking perfect English is an easy way to get the common man to associate himself with you, even if you're a multi-millionaire oil baron and career politician who's a former coke fiend.

    The point is: people who can't spell and can't write aren't a problem on the internet, because it's the internet and it offers a system of checks and balances that will quite often bury their points. You want to promote better English? Use it yourself and don't make it a point of elitism -- all that does is create a feeling of separatism that's not getting us a less abbreviated internet.
  • by thegrue76 (211065) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:24PM (#10182295) Homepage
    Except form and content are intimately entwined. A truly perfect piece of writing will not only be formally precise but intellectually stimulating. You can have all the brilliant ideas you want, but if you can't express them in a clear, engaging manner, you've got a handful of roubles in a world of American vending machines: your currency ain't gonna get you a Mountain Dew. And yes, sure, clear writing without interesting thought contained within it is pretty worthless, but. I guess the point is: you can't separate the two.

    While it's true that form might be taught more vigorously than content in schools, there's good reason for it; many students still need to grasp the formal rules of good writing. That, and it's so much harder to teach someone to think creatively than it is to teach them to write clearly. I guess it might be like composing music: you can learn what all the notes on the staff "are," but making them work to create music is something else entirely. Let alone, getting those notes to create truly original, creative, exciting, enticing, whatever music.
  • You're partially right. A bad essay is a point padded to fill a word limit.

    A good essay is a point illustrated through insights, pruned to fill a word limit.

    If you ever take a journalism or discourse class (and, if you ever plan to do any writing in any respect, you should), you will learn that a piece of writing is not done until you can take nothing else away without losing meaning.

    Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what we learn in school up to this point -- assignments like "write an X page paper on beekeeping" train young writers that what matters is not the content but the length that's important. This perception tends to stick with people -- my wife, who writes reports as part of her work, starts writing by setting up her page limit, and then tries to fill that. Doesn't matter what form her language takes or how many leading sentences she uses, she has to fill her limit or she doesn't feel like she's done. And when she goes over the limit, she stresses out as well.

    In a good discourse class, you learn to overwrite first. Plan for two or more pages to fill one page. Take out flimsy arguments, avoid needless soft language and remove obvious conclusions that don't prove your hypothesis. Of course, none of these would help you in a high school where the state board is looking for students to write a minimum of 40 pages per class per year -- only the most prolific fledgling authors could manage 80 pages and intense editing along with a normal courseload. I sure couldn't.

    Academia aside, good language isn't about length. It's about coherence. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was only 3 paragraphs long. It also doesn't address any single problem by name nor does it offer any solutions. If he had added those in there...he might have wound up with something like Castro's infamous marathon speeches...and still never left the point at hand.
  • by BrianMarshall (704425) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:46PM (#10182536) Homepage
    I blame schools.

    I hear you. I blame schools for a great deal.

    Up here in Canada, there is a great amount of fussing about how to make the school system better. The problem with schools is that at least 95% of what the students learn is crap. Rule-based, length-controlled essay writing is only a minor example.

    Kids come out of school knowing next to nothing about how the things in the world actually work. Instead the learn classification systems and definitions.

    As another example, take chemistry. Kids learn various definitions. They learn how to balance ionic equations. They learn how to lie about their lab results. But they learn next to nothing about the interesting stuff... hydrocarbons - methane, ethane, propane, butane..., get those carbon chains long enough (mostly around 7 or 8 in a chain) and you have gasoline. Look at the benzene ring (six atoms in an extremely rigid flat hexagonal ring. Replace a hydrogen with an OH and you get phenol - what makes the soar throat spray stuff work. Instead of the OH, replace a hydrogen with a methyl group (CH3) and you get toluene, the main ingredient (I think) in nail-polish remover - great solvent. Replace a few more hydrogens with nitrate groups (NO3) and you get trinitrotoluene - TNT. Now kids, those NO3s are kind of unstable; give 'em a hit and they will loose one of those oxygens, which given half a chance will try to combine with the carbons and hydrogens in there. Carbon and hydrogen love to combine with oxygen - we call it "burning". When TNT does it with oxygen that it supplies itself, we call it "blowing up".

    My point is that there is a lot of interesting things to learn about in this world. Instead, kids go to school.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:47PM (#10182544)
    It's private censorship, but it is still censorship. It may not be protected by the first amendment, but if we respect the first amendment then we should err on the side of letting people troll than risk silencing them.

    No. People have (or should have) a right to private life, and that means they should have a right to retreat to places where their thinking won't be challenged. You can't make someone think against their will; going into partisan groups and arguing for the opposite opinion is both rude and counterproductive. You will not enlighten creationists by posting excerpts from Dawkins to their newsgroups, and it is not an abridgement of your right to free speech - neither legally nor morally - for them to refuse to permit you to do so.
  • Re:One word (Score:3, Insightful)

    by networkBoy (774728) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @05:50PM (#10182580) Homepage Journal
    Oh so true. That seems to be my number one typo when I don't preview. :-)

    Common inversions aside, I tend to quit reading mangled text much faster than I quit reading well written text. In IMs brb is fine as I more "hear" than see the text. In forums like this, however, I tend to appriciate (and reward with more "eye-time") well written text.
    -nB
  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Concerned Onlooker (473481) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @07:42PM (#10183904) Homepage Journal
    When people take shortcuts and use stupid abbreviations, that signifies that the written language is evolving.

    This is the usual response people give to defend bad grammar and spelling. It's funny that a bunch of geeks who keep railing about standards in coding suddenly become anarchists when it comes to language. We have standardized our language for a reason, and that reason is effective communication. It's harder to communicate if people start redefining the rules whenever they feel like it.

    Of course the language is evolving, but that is not an excuse for a free-for-all.

  • Wrong Era (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Trailwalker (648636) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @07:44PM (#10183931)
    The essayist requires a literate, leisured audience. Carlyle, et. al., had this. You can read one of Carlyle's essays and have a pleasant time digesting the content and enjoying the style.

    The modern equivalent is the columnist. He requires neither leisure or nor much in the way of literacy. Content and style have suffered accordingly.
  • zerg (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Lord Omlette (124579) on Tuesday September 07, 2004 @09:29PM (#10184896) Homepage
    Expressing ideas helps to form them.
    w00t, teddy bear management!

    The Meander (aka Menderes) is a river in Turkey. As you might expect, it winds all over the place. But it doesn't do this out of frivolity. The path it has discovered is the most economical route to the sea.
    This is literary gold, I'll die happy when I can write something this awesome. (regardless of the caveat)
  • by GrodinTierce (571882) on Wednesday September 08, 2004 @12:27AM (#10186144) Journal
    I
    wish
    that
    they
    were
    formatted
    better.

    :)

  • by GCP (122438) on Wednesday September 08, 2004 @03:42AM (#10186955)
    I can't help thinking that it would end up a better language if you employed your "thinking out loud" essay technique in which people could respond to you and then to one another with ideas that you would study before making the final decisions.

    It seems to me that a multipartite (written) discussion forum is the natural extension of an essay by an individual writer when it comes to "searching for truth".

    But with Arc you seem to be talking to yourself, which you decry in your essay on essays as likely to lead to the petering out of a project. That or talking to a select handful of colleagues whose opinions you probably trust because they're so similar to your own, which is not so different from talking to yourself.

    If you want interesting surprises, why not open the discussion to people who care about things that you and your friends might not have put much thought into?

    What are the security implications of your design ideas? Some people don't care about dynamic vs. static typing per se but care a lot about the security issues, some of which might be impacted by this decision. Is there some relatively minor issue that might hamstring automatic decomposition into massive parallelism that you could change now but not later? Are there text models that would dramatically improve your chances of ending up with powerful text processing libraries? And what text model would be most likely to survive the radical changes in computer architectures that we will see over the next century?

    You say the world has waited for 45 years for a good Lisp, and you're correct in the sense you intended, but in another sense, of course, the world hasn't waited for Lisp at all. It has left it behind and built up massive ecosystems around its competitors. Those ecosystems are relentlessly growing and create a moving target for what a language is expected to have if it is to be a contender.

    Any really successful Lisp will need a lot of time after release to build up such an ecosystem, and the longer it takes to release it, the longer it will take *after* release to become a contender. I think it *will* make a difference whether it is released in 2 years or 10, though even if I'm right, you aren't obligated to do anything about it, of course.

    It just seems to me that you'd have a better chance of creating a better overall language if you had an open discussion of the design while change is still easy. You might even get things done sooner by delegating more of the implementation of everything from design comparison prototypes to docs.

  • Re:Impact of Blogs (Score:2, Insightful)

    by JPelorat (5320) on Wednesday September 08, 2004 @07:51AM (#10187682)
    Yes, I fully understand that language changes over time. That's not really the issue here. This is not about a consistent new way to spell things, or unorthodox but generally accepted usage, this is about a lot of ignorant people not caring how they spell things at all.

    At least I didn't use 'nemore' (and it's the phonetic abbreviation stuff that I'm mainly railing against).

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