Apodaca: The writing isn't on the wall

My older son and I have a Christmas tradition that I love. We give each other books.

He puts a lot of thought into his choices, usually opting for nonfiction because of our shared love of history. Thanks to him, I've read biographies of presidents and other world leaders, and learned more about the American Revolution, World War II, and the Cold War. He's also occasionally indulged my weakness for classic whodunnits.

My younger son, a college freshman, writes for a blog run by a campus club. In a recent posting, he presented a persuasive argument that the public discussion instigated by the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal will ultimately have a positive effect on sports.

So when a media maven's highly publicized comments sparked a new round of hand-wringing over whether the written word is dead, I had to sigh and shake my head. Here we go again.

This is how the latest tempest got started: Tina Brown, whose resume includes stints as top editor at Newsweek, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair magazines, recently attended a conference in India. While there, she announced that she had stopped reading magazines.

She went further, saying "I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversations," and that we are "going back to oral culture where the written word is less relevant."

Her comments were reported in a local newspaper, and before long other newspapers, magazines, blogs and Twitter feeds around the world — all outlets devoted to written words, by the way — picked up and picked apart the story.

I'm sure it's no coincidence that Brown chose to make her provocative views public at the very moment when she's leaving her job at the Daily Beast for a new career putting on conferences. In other words, she's giving up the written-word business for an industry devoted to spoken words. How providential for her that written words are no longer relevant now that she's no longer providing them.

Now I'm sure Brown must be a highly intelligent woman since she's held some pretty impressive jobs, has a posh English accent, and is probably being paid a load of money. But she's completely, utterly wrong.

The written word isn't dead or dying. It's not even sick.

Sure, ink and paper are on the way out, and many people, like me, now read books and news on tablet computers. And there's plenty of worry about where the world is headed, what with all those kids texting messages to each other that are often ungrammatical by conventional standards, and because of the proliferation of social media sites that don't hold to traditional writing norms.

But looked at another way — the right way, I believe — these are all auspicious trends for the written word.

First off, writing is writing, whether it's delivered on stone tablets, dead trees, or electronic screens.

More important, every new method of delivery and innovation in the way we write and read gives rise to creative new ways to express ourselves. Texts and tweets, for instance, aren't abominations of the written word — they're an evolutionary step that challenges writers to think and express themselves in a new way. That's not bad, just different, and it's certainly not a death knell heralding the end of our devotion to the written word.

As an old-school journalist — my first writing job, I'm a bit embarrassed to admit, involved a typewriter — I've heard more than enough nonsense over the years about the death of journalism, another mainstay of civilized society that Brown called into question. But I'd argue that, like the written word, journalism isn't dying — it's just changing. Though that change has been difficult and disruptive, it's not deadly.

While I'm on the topic of things that some people claim are dead but really aren't, I'll share another one of Brown's insights.

"TV is dead and now they are chasing a demographic they are never going to find," she said. "We've reached a moment… 'my god, the television is an ugly piece of furniture.'"

I'm sure this "TV is dead" pronouncement comes as surprising news to Hollywood and the entire television industry everywhere, which looks remarkably healthy for a dead thing.

I suppose the point to all this is to get people talking, and in that Brown certainly succeeded. But there has to be a better way of provoking informed discussion and plugging her new venture than the old canard of pronouncing something dead.

After all, we certainly wouldn't want the news to get out to our kids that the written word isn't relevant anymore. Our local schools are just now introducing rigorous new standards that are very big on developing critical thinking through reading and writing. Should we forget about all that and let young people know that they needn't bother studying literature and composition?

Of course not. The deep and lasting benefits of strong reading and writing skills are exceedingly well documented, and I suspect that those who exaggerate the peril of the written word know that very well.

This Christmas, and for many yet to come, there will be books under my tree. Long live the written word.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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