Thursday, September 23, 2010

Around the Word: Great Debates

Today, we're refereeing three debates for language-lovers:
  • To eBook or not to eBook?  Words may look the same onscreen as on paper—but somehow they feel different.  The text's form—an eBook, a Word Doc, a notepad or thick novel—colors our approach to reading and writing.  In Wired, technology writer David Dobbs illuminates these internal shifts, examining the benefits and drawbacks of digital and paper-based media.  For instance, Dobbs sticks to the screen for fine-toothed line-edits, but for large-scale changes, he finds he is "more sensitive to proportion and rhythm and timbre" when marking up a printed page.  And, while praising the iPad's lightweight frame, he describes eBook reading as more "horizontal" and diffuse compared with the "vertical" intensity of a physical book.  Online, a reader is always conscious of potential links—you can toggle to a dictionary or Wikipedia to clarify a word or allusion, perhaps glance at your email on the way back.  This extra material tugs Dobbs away from the text, so that even serious reading feels "shallower."  We turn to you: have you experienced similar differences when you approach texts onscreen or on paper?  Which do you prefer?
    In the same vein, iPad-toting authors might enjoy Information Architects' latest app, "Writer."  "Writer" creates a writing and editing arena that clears out distractions and employs a typeface designed to promote slow, careful reading.  "Focus Mode" turns off auto-correct and spell-check prompts, and blurs out all text but the three lines you are working on.  It also features estimated reading-time for a block of text.  If you give this app a whirl, let us know how it works for you!
  • Fans of contemporary fiction may have noticed the brouhaha brewing over the Man Booker Prize finalists.  The New York Observer has the scoop: three of the six finalists wrote their novels in the present tense, a tactic that piques two famous British authors.  Philip Pullman, author of the popular His Dark Materials series, and Philip Hensher, former Booker Prize judge, deride the use of present tense as a trendy technique that creates a superficial sense of "daring" and "unreliable" narrative.  Book critic Laura Miller, writing for Salon, defends the three Booker hopefuls for plying what she believes is a well-justified and powerful technique given the specific character of the novels (one, for instance, is narrated by a five-year-old child).  Have you read any novels in the present tense recently?  What were your impressions?
  • Here's catnip for grammar sticklers who literally wince at the misuse of "literally."  The webcomic The Oatmeal warns you to choose your words carefully, because literally anything could happen.  And xkcd pokes nerdy fun at the literal/figurative mix-up.  So, what is the literal meaning of "literally"?  We dug up this Slate article by dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower, who traces the irksome intensifier's transformation over centuries of use and abuse.

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