Rob Parsons

From Gutenburg to Texting

Ruminations on the written word

by Rob Parsons

December 3 , 2009

Torrents of rain upon my Haiku rooftop woke me from dreamland. The volume of water overflowed the gutters, sending a mini-waterfall onto the porch stairs, so forceful it power-washed the paint right off. After five minutes, the downpour subsided.

Thus began my day of writing the weekly column that has been a regular routine and central focus over the past three years. The Rob Report has been equally a privilege—the opportunity to share valuable information while advocating positive change—and a challenge. If only my word count quota could stream forth as vigorously as the morning rain shower.

Back in eighth grade English class at Cherokee Junior High School, Mrs. Wenger sought to stimulate our writing by assigning a weekly essay, a task that elicited groans from my classmates. The topics were to be of our own choice, with the caveat that the first paper was to cover "plagiarism." To those of us who went scrambling to the dictionary or encyclopedia for a definition, the intent was obvious: Alerting us that original material was greatly preferred, not a report copying verbatim or rehashing someone else's work.

I dutifully complied with the weekly chore, and even recall praise from our no-nonsense instructor—who was rumored to have once served as an Army drill sergeant—on a particular story. Mrs. Wenger lauded an essay I wrote about a glass showcase of curios that our family nicknamed, "The Museum." The three-shelved yellow cabinet contained items as diverse as Alaskan engraved walrus tusks, an autographed Milwaukee Braves baseball, Hopi kachina dolls and a rattlesnake rattle.

The take-home message that accompanied the "A" on the paper was to personalize a story, to write about things you know. Ever since, I have appreciated the yarn-spinning component in the musings of local writers Tom Stevens ("Shave Ice") and Paul Wood, who authored "Four Corners Five Wheels" in the now defunct Haleakala Times.

Wood was my first editor, as well as my instructor at MCC through the VITEC program. Stevens remains the unequaled superstar of similes and metaphors, with a memory for details sharper than a Thanksgiving carving knife. Both are masters of their craft, in a vast Pacific gyre of floating plasticized prose.

Since the Johannes Gutenburg press revolutionized the printed word in the mid-15th century, the industrial revolution and new technology have continued to push the boundaries of literature, journalism, data-sharing and instant access to information. The very process of finding the date for the German goldsmith's printing press (1440), the grade-school olfactory memory-eliciting mimeograph (1876) or laser printer (1969) is accomplished with a click or two from a home computer or handheld iPhone.

Wikipedia has supplanted what once required a trip to the 20-volume red and blue-covered World Book Encyclopedia on our family bookshelf.

At least my family instilled an appreciation for knowledge and learning, as well as reading and writing. Both my parents and elementary school teachers took time to read books aloud, and we also listened to the "Chapter a Day" program on Public Radio. Mom and Dad read classics such as The Wind in the Willows, The Phantom Tollbooth, and E.B. White's Charlottes's Web and Stuart Little. I remember my third grade teacher Mrs. Huddlestone reading us the original Pinocchio, quite different than the popular Disney cartoon version.

We have since skyrocketed into a Jetsons-esque world of gadgets, and books, magazines and newspapers simply don't have the bling or flash of their electronic counterparts. A weekend trip to the Maui Swap Meet reminded me how pervasive the personal media player earplugs are to a certain 'tween-to-teen age group, providing a buffer to the outside world.

In our fast-paced digital age, reading has become a luxury, though some commuters may opt for books on tape while driving. Text messages and e-mail have given birth to a brave new world of abbreviations and misspellings. But even texters may be hitting the saturation point. As a friend recently noted, "LOL used to mean 'laugh out loud.' Now it's more like, 'I don't have anything else to say.'"

Then there are those who unfortunately have too much to say. Blogs and online comment forums have opened up the discussion and facilitated a new kind of debate—one that frequently devolves into factually void protestations and name-calling rather than insightful discourse. The noteworthy truth about opinions is that they don't require a person to actually know anything to have one. At least, that was the viewpoint shared by tennis star Andre Agassi.

Everything, of course, is debatable, though some might argue that. My morning meteorological observations might be deemed overblown by a Kauai resident of Hanalei Valley who endured 19 inches of rain over a 24-hour period last week.

My recent Rob Report opinion that money spent on the LCROSS lunar mission could be better prioritized on down-to-Earth social needs stirred up a tempest of online criticism from NASA fans and educators, including one who penned a book about a boy who lives in a lunar space colony. (Footnote: Studies from LCROSS data seen to indicate there is evidence of water, or at least carbon-based materials, on the moon. Now, can we find adequate clean water for all our needs here on Earth?)

It is generally my hope that my weekly articles may 'provoke' the reader in the purest etymological sense: to call forth or excite one's interests and ideas. Ideally, good writing can accomplish that with a tickle or a nudge, rather than a poke from a sharp stick.

In my youth, I was a voracious reader, the kind who snuck a flashlight under my covers at night to read after bedtime. Through college and beyond, I was always in search of a good book. I remember being amazed at Ken Kesey's passage in Sometimes a Great Notion, when the family dog is the narrator and slips into a loopy reverie while the poison of a snakebite courses through his bloodstream.

I am still awed by the Technicolor literary palette of Tom Robbins's novels, and his uncanny ability to paint multi-hued fantastic epics with the same words available to the rest of us. Such extraordinary writing serves not just to entertain, but also to inspire one to reach for higher, riper, more succulent fruit in the Tree of Knowledge.

My wife Heather is now the ravenous reader in the family, leaning often toward historical fiction novels. I still read daily, though I'm generally limited to periodicals, online research and e-mailed articles. Like so many others, I often allow smaller sound bites to take the place of more in-depth dissertations. Still, I'm grateful for a speed-reading course taken during December of my freshman year in college.

Likewise, I have great respect for a small gift from my Dad some year's back: a copy of Strunk & White's writer's handbook, The Elements of Style. That diminutive guide, which turned 50 this year, serves as a frequent reference, occupying a place of esteem beside my Thesaurus. (Dad, a physician who never quite understood the word "retired," has authored two books of his own since closing his private practice.)

One of Strunk and White's most poignant maxims asks that the writer "omit needless words." As I've already over-indulged both you, the reader, and myself, I'll leave that duty to my trusted editor.