In my wanderings through various cities and university towns, I encountered a strange creature called the writer (and its close cousin, the critic). I was told that it is an endangered species. The world does not need it much any more having advanced to higher levels of the human condition thanks to the blessings of technological advancement.
Now that the governments of the world are only nurturing STEM’s– Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics–to pave the way to the future, no one quite knows what to do with these writers–these fruits of civilization.
In this environment, I was told, the writer and the critic have retreated to remote locations far away from the power sources of our planet, some into nice little caves if they were the lucky few, others into real smelly holes, and some have evolved and blended in with the rest of the population where they are not easy to recognize as writers.
Yet, despite the threat of extinction, unlike other endangered species the world has yet seen, this ancient breed has been proliferating like love bugs in breeding season in the tropics, all over this imaginary space called the internet. A paradox that needed some looking into. Hence I put on my researchers’ binoculars once again and set out to observe said species.
At first, I had to readjust my binoculars. This was going to be a very different experience from observing the science and tech geeks that I reported on a few weeks ago. For one thing, the tech geeks were easier to locate, in their labs or in a workplace, working on something as tangible as making cell phone batteries thinner and lighter or just doing the chemistry in their head on how to make mineral cosmetics to bring more beauty to the world while they doodled.They often hung out together in homogeneous groups fairly easily locatable on account of unique styles of dressing and interactive behaviour.
It was much harder to find the writers and and even harder to find the critics, and their work was even more mysteriously elusive.
In search of my subjects, I first visited a graduate student office meant not for individual but collective use.
The journey was not dangerous but creaky. A very old elevator moved up several floors of the oldest building on campus next to the quad, an elevator unlike any I’d ever seen except in certain industrial godowns and certainly not in any other building of the school, before I realized I was in the attic. The sun was bright outside and I had to blink several times before a long room presented itself. On either side of a long aisle computers were arranged in neat rows. A regular enough workplace.
On closer observation though I found that the computers were rather unique. One was stuck at the login stage and no matter what you typed into the little password box, the cursor went off on a trip to Mars and back and you could take several trips up and down that windowless room before it reached the new screen. All the madmen and madwomen were, no doubt, housed in this attic.
A second computer made a loud whooshing sound as soon as it was turned on as though the sea was crashing waves right outside. No doubt the ocean facilitated imaginative ideas which these madfolk lived on. Another machine had completely given up any pretences to having been a computer in its past life at all. The monitor was now being used as a book table for several books that were piled on it. In fact, the room seemed to be more a repository of ancient computers that needed to rest in peace in the realm of the imagination than stuff to type on and google, an activity which writers called work.
Along the wall there were several shelves.
So what’s on the bookshelves, I thought to myself. Those look like books.
Books. Yes. Millions of them. On the shelves, on the floor, on the tables, everywhere. Their mass and weight seemed enough to be capable of knocking out a few unsuspecting young undergrads two or three at a time. I had never seen so many books.
I realized that the road to reaching the end of this attic was literally paved in undergraduate textbooks. Thick books, thin books, pocket sized books, hard bound, paperback, spiral bound, books still in cellophane packages with CDs still inside,books with instructors’ manuals, all complimentary texts presented to the graduate student TA’s by the big publishers. There seemed to be only four or five big publishers who had produced so many books!
Unlike the computers, these were super new, various versions of the same books with multiple editions that seemed to have come out every few months to make buying new books less difficult for students.
One big box of exceptionally thick books on Writing about Writing was usefully propping up the main door of the office since the AC was out of whack. A stray student loitering around told me that the bookshelves themselves were homages to the arts from the business school last year where no one needed them any more. As were the computers from the year before.
I could not stay here much longer because said stray student soon got into a pretty loud argument with one of his teachers. It was regarding a course with a five email response system to readings per semester. He had come to get his A changed to an A+ based on this system. The syllabus had apparently not mentioned anything about the number of words per response. So he had had the smartest idea in his class to convert his tweets into emails.
I was rather pleasantly surprised to see another young man walk in through the door delivering what looked like a huge potted plant. “An argument tree for class,” he explained. On closer inspection, I noticed that the green leaves would not be able to perform much photosynthesis at all considering they were made of green crepe paper and had “claim,” “warrant,” “inference” and such words written all over them. What a cool teacher, I thought. The syllogistic synthetic vegetable nourishing the writing process all made in class!
Next, a grad student tipped me off about a library in the vicinity where writers and critics congregated for work.
[Continued on my next post. “The Writer (Part 2)“]