Why Bother to Write? Part I

In a society with an excess of words, is writing worth it?

I sit down to write this with fear and trembling. But it is not a fear of the judgment of readers so much as a fear of failing them. It’s an audacious endeavor, after all, this writing business.

I saw a graphic on Facebook the other day that said this: “If you read one book a week, starting at the age of 5, and live to be 80, you will have read a grand total of 3,900 books for the rest of your life – a little over one tenth of 1 percent of the books currently in print.”

One tenth of one percent. That’s one out of every one thousand books – not including those out of print. That’s minuscule!

Reading one book a week is a pretty respectable clip. Some readers of this site probably read more than that. I don’t. But in any case the point is clear. Double that rate to two books a week and you get to 0.2 percent. Congratulations, you’ve taken a few more buckets out of the ocean.

As John Ehrett pointed out so eloquently on this site last year in his piece “In Praise of Old Workspaces,” traditional libraries inspire awe at the monuments of human knowledge and the intellectual giants that have preceded us, and they are “a reminder of the relative smallness of one’s own place in the grand tapestry of human thought.” They inspire that awe in me too, but the awe has a shadow side. I love perusing bookstores and libraries both new and old, but they almost always become nauseating. They push me toward insanity and paralysis, evoking the opening and closing words of the ancient sage in Ecclesiastes:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been done already in the ages before us.”

And the conclusion: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

What’s the point? It is an endless endeavor. If you’ve written about something that was done, someone else has already written about it. If you’ve had a thought, one of the books in the bookstore had it first. If you tried to read through every volume in your public library (not to mention the universities or the Library of Congress), how many lifetimes would it take? How does one start to wade through it all? What sense can I possibly hope to make of it? We’ve got information in the information age, and though the collective body of human knowledge has grown exponentially, each of us as individuals are just as ignorant as ever in the grand face of all there is to know. We go to school to learn a thin framework of history, literature, and philosophy. With decades of study, we claw our way up this rickety ladder to the shoulders of giants, only to find more giants standing atop them, and even from this raised vantage point we see countless others climbing giants on the horizon that we didn’t even know were out there.

For aspiring literary types and would-be writers, it raises a terrifying question: Who the hell am I to add my own words to mankind’s infinite annals? How dare I presume to speak something worthwhile – to offer words for the consumption of others? How dare I, when we have Shakespeare and Milton and Hemingway and Chesterton and Lewis and Steinbeck and O’Connor and Robinson and hundreds of other writers whose literary genius, mastery of language, and insight into life far surpasses mine?

I look down to find myself standing in the same shoes as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s youthful and anxious Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise. He knows he has talent, but he’s also learned a thing or two about the folly of the world, and so he laments to a friend, “And that is why I have sworn not to put pen to paper until my ideas either clarify or depart entirely; I have quite enough sins on my soul without putting dangerous, shallow epigrams into people’s heads . . . I believe too much in the responsibilities of authorship to write just now.”

There’s the rub. Words matter. Authorship carries responsibility. The Apostle James’ warning about teachers, I think, is one we could substitute for writers: “Not many of you should become (writers), my brothers, for you know that we who (write) will be judged with greater strictness.”

James’ warning about the tongue is also relevant here. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then his warnings about speech are analogous to warnings about the words we write. Let’s make the substitution again: “If anyone does not stumble in what he (writes), he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body… Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder where the will of the pilot directs. So also the (pen) is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.”

Ah, what great things authors boast of. When writers put words down on a page with the intent to publish, they make an outlandish claim on the reader: Take a few minutes, hours, or days of your life and experience what I have to say. Come to me and learn, or be entertained, or be edified. It’s an implicit call to the reader to come read your words and be blessed. That’s a bold claim – an endeavor of greatness. And the stakes are high. I’m not sure there’s anything as pointless as a reading a hack job of a novel, an undeveloped thought posing as criticism, or any form of poorly written prose that doesn’t say much of anything.

But even if the writer should find a way to rise above this and produce something a few notches better than mediocrity, suppose he moves beyond his blog or journal and writes a piece good enough to publish in, say, Humane Pursuits, does he still justify his existence? Can he still claim, in good conscience, a readership? Has he done anything noteworthy beyond adding to the noise of words and images that fill today’s screens and bookshelves?

It seems like writers who confront these questions must pause for an existential reckoning. As the philosopher Otto Von Rank said, “for the time being I gave up writing—there is already too much truth in the world—an overproduction which apparently cannot be consumed!”

We hear a lot about the dangers of misinformation spreading in the digital age, but Von Rank highlights an equally perplexing problem: the overproduction of truth. At a time when so many are striving to make their voices heard and writing a lot of worthwhile things, how does the aspiring wordsmith justify more writing?

In the next post I will venture to propose the humble beginnings of an answer. Don’t throw out your typewriter just yet.

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