[Response, as published in College English, 37:7 (March 1976), 703, to "What Is So Sacred About Writing?"]
Most of the points made by Ms. Rahme are, I think, thoroughly considered in my original article and need no rehashing here. I think one matter, however, may be worth considering at more length.
I had assumed that it went without saying that writing and speaking are two different means of communication, and that the advantages of written over oral language for many intellectual purposes were obvious. Apparently it does not go without saying.
Let me say, then, that it is abundantly clear that the amount of pre- (and post-) meditation involved in the composition of a written sentence, as well as the complexity of syntax that is possible when words are displayed on a page rather than being sequentially detonated in time, makes written language an tool for intellectual exploration as well as for discourse and explanation. It is not so much that syntactically complex sentences (like the preceding one) are impossible in oral communication, but that subtle and intricately structured arguments (not to mention poems, stories, or novels) are impossible in that form. It is a dismal fantasy to think that artifacts like Ulysses, or "Flowering Judas" – or even "The Hill Wife" or The Way of the World, both ostensibly "conversational" – could have been conceived or executed in any form but the mechanically written word. And indeed, the first two (at least) can only be adequately attended to in such a form.
This is true because of the mechanical relationship between the work and its audience, as well as that between the creator and his work. A tape-recorded version of Emma or even of All the President's Men becomes an obviously ludicrous folly as soon as it is envisioned concretely. How much tape would you need? How long would it take to "read" it? How, mechanically, might you cross-refer? How about an index or notes? Who could read it for the recording and avoid both monotone and individual interpretation? How would I read it in the bathroom? There is an endless succession of obvious and equally unanswerable questions.
It seems not only an oddly irresponsible, but an entirely thoughtless
species of folly to ask, as Ms. Rahme does, "what is so sacred about writing?"
It is far more than sacred, and it is in practice indispensable: far, far
more than "merely a technology for transmitting speech." To forget this
and carelessly accept the hardware merchants' assurances that words are
just data, anyway, would be to abandon civilization itself. It is perhaps
premature to sound this particular alarm at this point – but I find it
distressing that composition teachers such as Ms. Rahme are so willing
to subscribe to these trendy and simplistic slogans.