We used to wait for it
Now we’re screaming sing the chorus again
– Arcade Fire, ‘We Used to Wait’
I watched the President’s speech on Wednesday. He spoke about expanding our moral imaginations, civilizing our discourse, and building a society that lives up to our children’s expectations. Once he was finished, I watched a panel of pundits explain what he had said. They pointed out what the key points of the speech had been, how politically effective it might be, and how it stacked up against other presidential speeches. There was no time in between. Whatever my own reactions might have been, they are now irretrievably bound up with those of Michael Beschloss and Ellen Fitzpatrick. They never stood a chance. A good thing, too, maybe, as naive and shapeless as they were.
TV news does a great job of making the formation of opinions as quick and painless as possible for the viewer. Pick the talking head you agree with, and move on — and don’t dawdle; you’ll need to form another opinion in a few minutes, on something completely different. No doubt there were plenty of Americans (I could easily have been among them) who forwent the speech altogether, and gleaned its main messages from some postmortem writeup. Consuming current events in this way is efficient and mildly pleasant, like drinking a flavored protein shake.
In fact, I was so fully nourished by the speech and its commentary that the whole thing might never have crossed my mind again, if it hadn’t been for an obscurely connected thought that occurred to me this morning. For this I thank one of my friends on Facebook, who confessed in his status to indulging in a certain linguistic sin. Like a great many others, this person still pig-headedly persists, in the face of a mounting barrage of scorn from grammarians and their accomplices, in typing two spaces after every sentence. This despite the fact that every style manual in the known universe commands against that second space; that designers and copy editors have drawn our attention time and again to its ugliness; that modern proportional fonts and smart word-processors have made it obsolete; and that the cumulative strain of all those extra keystrokes no doubt takes weeks, months, off of the lives of our wrists. Two-spacing is an embarrassing relic of the typewriter age, doomed to die out along with those who remember it. If there is any justification for the practice, other than sheer force of habit, it seems no one has yet come forward with it. (See Friday’s Slate article for a longer and snarkier version of all this.)
So goes the rhetoric of the one-spacers, who spend much of their time, like the Star-Belly Sneetches, lounging around and mocking their benighted neighbors. One might think of this whole debate as comically Seussian, except that as the one-spacers make very clear, some of our most cherished modern values are at stake. For the two advantages of one-spacing that are always, always cited are these: one-spaced text is easier on the eyes; and it conveys information more efficiently. This is a devastating one-two punch.
I am not oblivious. I see the writing on the wall for that second space. It’s destined to go the way of the dodo, and the streetcar, and the VHS tape, and everything else that was too fat and slow to get out of the way of modernity. And I am not eager to antagonize the entire community of typographers, graphic designers, and style mavens, who are all but unanimous in their ridicule of a moribund grammatical fashion. But since this battle seems to be coming to a head, we owe it to ourselves to squint into the inevitable future, at least, and ask what we can expect from a one-spaced world. Which means asking this question — this uncomfortable, even heretical question:
Are attractiveness and efficiency always good things?
Did setting that question apart make you really think about it? (Note that to set it apart at all, I had to dupe my blogging platform by inserting a blank image! In the future, will wielders of white space have to resort to ever sneakier forms of subterfuge?) On the off chance that it did, maybe you already see where I’m going. Here is another question. Who benefits when text is efficient and attractive? The reader? Maybe. But what about the writer? Doesn’t she have an incentive to make her ideas go down as quickly and smoothly as possible? Doesn’t it behoove her to keep things skipping along, to keep that next thought within tantalizing reach, to forestall her reader’s urge to second-guess the last one? Might that iota of extra space be faintly threatening to her, as a locus of thought, of reflection, of protest?
Information overload is something I worry a lot about. I consume vast amounts of information on a daily basis, much of it in a sloppy, gluttonous, indiscriminate, face-stuffing binge. Some of it is delicious and nutritious, but a lot of it is dreck. Some of it gets digested, but a lot of it — well, I’ll spare you the gory details. When a particular piece of text slides effortlessly down, it is not always a good feeling. Sometimes it just leaves me feeling dulled and unsatisfied. Maybe this is why I always find it so refreshing to dip into something like the King James Bible, with its gulfs of space between verses, or Shakespeare, with his twisted sentences and archaic words that grind the brain to a crawl. These texts turn reading into a participatory act, rather than a mere act of consumption.
Prose, unless you happen to be James Joyce, should be as transparent and unobtrusive as possible. On that point, nearly everyone from Strunk and White on down seems to agree. But to ignore text, to look straight through it in its bland attractiveness, is to look through a warped windowpane: it means overlooking the power of words to distort, to misdirect, to beckon and repel. Standardizing the written word, a process that has taken thousands of years, has always ostensibly been about empowering the reader. (Few of us, anyway, would want to go back to the good old days of unspaced, unpunctuated, liberally misspelled medieval gobbledygook.) But we shouldn’t neglect the possibility that it’s also been about imposing a voice, a single, constant, inescapable, unquestionable voice: the voice of power. A voice that now insists on minimizing the pause between thoughts.
I don’t know how far to push this argument. In the wake of Jared Loughner’s linguistic paranoia and the horrors it inspired, the last thing I want to do is encourage grammatical conspiracy theories. In any case, there’s certainly plenty of prose out there that deserves no more than to be sucked down as quickly as possible, with as little fuss as possible. And I myself am doing my darnedest, as you can see, to learn to love the single space. Results, so far, are mixed. My paragraphs do have a certain pleasing smoothness now, if you stand a little ways off and squint. But I find myself missing that extra beat, that miniature opportunity to reflect on each thought once it’s wriggled its way free, and to ask myself whether I really want to unload it onto an already encumbered culture.
I do believe that in a world like this one, where content proliferates far faster than anyone can keep up with it, and where the consumption of ideas is so often a passive affair, every millimeter of breathing room counts for a lot — not only for those who consume the ideas, but for those who create them. Who knows? That breathing room may even figure in to the ‘civilized discourse’ that our President has so radically proposed. So perhaps it isn’t too much to ask, of the committed one-spacers, that they let the rest of us — those of us who tire sometimes of the relentlessness of modern culture; those of us who prefer sometimes to poke and prod and pick apart our words, rather than inhaling them whole; those of us who hold the pause sacred — that they let us just wave our freak flags for a little