1000 Words: Inkstained

I actually got assigned a paid writing gig for 2023 a couple of weeks ago.

In this year of somebody’s lord, 2022, that’s about as rare a statement as “I hate dialing my TV repairman’s number because it has too many zeroes in it.”

Getting paid to put words to paper is a vanishing occupation. For pity’s sake, putting words to paper — period! — is a vanishing occupation.

Let me correct that: vanished.

I made the vast majority of my dough in this life writing things. News stories. Personality profiles. Explanatory articles. Investigative journalism. Newsletters. Press releases. Annual reports. Anything and everything that could emanate from my (1st) typewriter keyboard, (2nd) word processor, and finally (3rd) laptop. See? My scribbling career spanned essentially three writing hardware technological evolutions.

You think that’s something, try this: When I started out in this racket I either had to mail my manuscripts to my editors or deliver them by hand, taking the bus and train or riding my bicycle.

Mail. As is stuffing a bunch of sheets of paper into an envelope, sealing it, addressing it, putting stamps on it, and walking down to the mailbox to drop it in. Imagine that!

It’s like someone born right before the turn of the 20th century trying to explain to a space age schoolchild how he used to harness the horse to his buggy so’s he could git down to the general store to load up on fatback.

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Laughably Obsolete

Newspapers are dying. Magazines are dead. Nobody writes letters anymore. Hallmark and countless precious artisans produce greeting cards for every possible occasion and with a seemingly infinite number of cutesy, kitschy, treacly inscriptions inside. For that matter, the card cos. needn’t hire actual human being to write birthday doggerel anymore. Simply invest in the appropriate AI software and let the company desktop write the tripe.

For all we know, newspapers and other news gathering outlets may soon be doing the same thing — letting AI bots write their copy.

I know college and high school students of late have been trying to sneak AI-written term papers and theses past the watchful eyes of their teachers. They’re getting caught, fairly easily, right now as the AI technology still is in its infancy but once the bugs are worked out it’s a good bet English literature teacher Mrs. Bertram or Professor Maher in the poli-sci dept. will be fooled more often than not, sooner rather than later.

I know a couple of guys who persist in actually applying ink to paper even as the craft is swiftly disappearing. Dave Torneo, who runs Ledge Mule Press (itself an anachronism in the publishing industry; Ledge Mule does letterpress, woodblock, and other handmade printing) can be found any day of the week, at any Bloomington coffeehouse, writing cards or letters to friends and loved ones. Addison Rogers, one of the Busman’s Holiday boys, emcees a weekly gathering of old schoolers who also write cards and letters to people, just because.

Thing is, both Torneo and Rogers do their bit more as a lark than as something vital to their existence. They’re like those people who build their own kitchen cabinets — they don’t have to and, in fact, it seems almost silly for them to do so, yet they carry on.

Well silly, that is, to the vast majority of the populace who loathe the notion of any activity cutting into their streaming service-watching time. Hah! I was going to write “TV-watching time” but who in the hell watches TV anymore?

And, in a way, Torneo and Rogers’ shared literary pastime indeed is vital to their existence. For without writing cards and letters everyday, they might be forced to while away the hours…, well, watching streaming services on their desktops. Or, knowing them, still going old school and flipping on the TV.

Once they bury themselves in the TV or computer screen they would be inching nearer to a kind of death.

This recently concluded Christmas season was quite a good one for the Book Corner. And that seems odd because not only are people holding on to their nickels a bit tighter during this current inflation but, conventional wisdom has it, the book industry is dying. I’ve written about this misconception quite recently, maintaining book reading and buying is as robust as it’s ever been in this holy land. Honestly, you don’t figure Clay County farmers were devouring tomes penned by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hannah Arendt, or Ralph Ellison back before people had televisions in every goddamned room of the house, do you?

Reading always has been sort of an elite thing to do in America, which is a damned shame. Oddly enough, people seem to be reading more than ever today, if you consider the intake of social media and other internet chattering to be reading. On the other hand, if you’re reading The Pencil, you are a literary connoisseur indeed.

This has to be a particularly American phenomenon. There’s no end to the number of books written about the Dumbing Down of America — and they’ve been written throughout out the entire history of this great nation. Great, natch, in certain ways only.

Not great as in Umberto Ecco‘s private library.


Eco’s Home Library Reportedly Contained 30,000 Volumes.

In any case, as I do every single year, I’m loading up on books to get me through the winter. Here are three I look forward to reading as I watch the days — thankfully — get longer:

  • Mercury Rising by Jeff Shesol — The story of NASA’s Project Mercury, focusing on John Glenn and his first-American-to-orbit-the-Earth mission as well as President John F. Kennedy’s gambit to one-up the Russkies.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain — This one’s more than 20 years old now but it’s still a hoot. What a fascinating, adventurous, informative, creative, and ultimately doomed human being Bourdain was.
  • All About Me! by Mel Brooks — Love him or hate him — and plenty of people think his comedy was so lowbrow as to be Neanderthal, Brooks has made the world laugh for more than half a century, so what could be wrong about that?

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