When everyone is a writer, who reads?

(This is a piece I wrote a couple years ago as an exercise for a course on science communication. I thought why not throw it into the internets, instead of sitting on it forever.)

Writing is quickly taking over the place of reading as the favored pass-time of the literate. During the 19th century Finnish peasants learned how to write by copying letters from tombstones and scribbling on snow with a stick. In the 21st century social media has become the new diary and bits and pixels have replaced ink.

Are you a writer? Finland is a literature loving nation, but the odds are that the majority of people reading this will answer “no”. They are wrong.

The western societies are transitioning from the era of mass reading into the time of mass writing. Mass writing means that we write more than we read. More and more people spend ever bigger portions of their working hours writing. This doesn’t apply to just researchers, publicists or memo manufacturing public officials. Nowadays the work description that doesn’t include any e-mail correspondence or filling out forms is a rare oddity.

When we get back home from work we just keep on writing. SMS’s, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, blogs, internet discussion forums, you name it, we write it. It’s like we are copywriters hired by ourselves, producing content about ourselves, for ourselves.

At times we are forced to stop and read a little, though. But even that we do as writers and on writing’s terms, claims Professor Deborah Brandt, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since writing has started to take over our brains, our reading has become fragmented. As writer-readers we are constantly on the look for ideas to be used in future writing.

According to Brandt, reading and writing are two very different processes, as far as the human brain is concerned. Writing is more practical then reading. It activates the same areas of the brain as social interaction. In addition, reading your own text is a different neurological process than reading someone else’s writing.

Brandt’s observations about the changes in the culture of literacy in the United States apply also to other western societies. She sees the shift to mass writing as a phenomenon with major societal implications. In order to grasp what those implications are it is useful to take a look at a time when the masses were still scribbling their first scrawls.

***

In today’s western societies it has become nearly impossible to function as a citizen without the ability to write. In our everyday lives we think about the act of writing about as much as breathing. Historically speaking this is a very recent occurrence.

The history of Finnish common people and the ability to write is much shorter that the history of reading in Finland, which isn’t a particularly long one either. The idea of educating common people in the art of reading was part of the Lutheran ideology from early on. The demand of general literacy was included already in the church law of 1686.

The criteria used for measuring the reading ability of the ordinary people was not very ambitious. By modern standards it wasn’t really about reading at all. Being able to memorize certain passages of the Bible and the Catechism was considered sufficient. Parents were saddled with the responsibility of teaching their progeny. Home schooling was often a case of the blind leading the blind.

The church or the society did not encourage common folk in broadening their skills towards writing, quite the contrary. Reading was reserved for Bible and therefore served a noble spiritual purpose. Writing was considered as a more worldly skill, serving government and economy. The simple folk needed protection from such possibly damaging influences.

The protection worked. About two hundred years ago only approximately one in twenty Finns knew how to write. This figure includes the gentry. According to governor’s reports from the Kuopio province in the 1860’s the percentage of common people being able to write was about 2%. The figure is likely to be similar for the rest of Finland.

In all fairness it needs to be said that also the peasant population themselves disapproved wannabe writers from their own ranks. They were seen as trying to climb up the social ladder, which was unacceptable behavior in the static class society of the time.

***

Despite the social stigma, writing was a useful skill for a 19th century peasant. If you, for example, needed an official document, but didn’t know how to write, you needed to find yourself a scribe. Getting the service from someone else was of course costly. The many languages that were in use in Finland during the time caused additional expenses. The peasants spoke Finnish and the gentry Swedish while the language of government was Russian.

In the late 19th century immigrants flowed to the North America, among them thousands of Finns. Correspondence with the emigrated relatives was difficult if you couldn’t write. Writing the letters wasn’t the only obstacle, also reading the answers proved difficult. Since few knew how to write, very few were also able to read handwriting.

The Bibles and Catechisms that were read aloud at the reading hearings organized by the church, were printed in the very decorative and therefore difficult to read Fraktur type. There have been speculations about whether this was a deliberate act of preventing commoners from gaining access to true literacy by the upper classes.

Only a handful of ambulatory school teachers taught writing. For the lack of a better teacher many peasants learned writing by themselves. They scribbled letters with a rusty nail or a piece of charcoal on some dry bark, or practiced by writing on snow with a twig. As a model they used the few written words available to them, such as tombstones. With methods like these, correct grammar, spelling and punctuation were beyond their reach.

After the basics of drawing letters as well as some more suitable equipment, such as pen and paper, were acquired, there was still the difficult task of finding a table and some light hindering hopeful peasant writers.

***

Considering all the obstacles it is no wonder that it was thought for a long time that texts by Finnish common people simply do not exist outside the small circle of late 19th century published peasant authors.

Docent Anna Kuismin from the University of Helsinki got interested in the writings of self-taught ordinary people in the early 2000’s. She started tracing them from different archives. It was a big surprise to everyone when texts starting popping up here and there. By 2012 Kuismin had a record of 400 writers born before 1880. Approximately 10 percent of them are women.

Even though the number of writers found by Kuismin is surprisingly high, population wise it is a small number. Finland had approximately two million inhabitants in 1880, majority of whom were peasants. Even if we take into consideration that many texts, were they diaries, notebooks, letters, postcards or almanacs, must have been lost and destroyed over the years, and therefore multiply the figure by, say, ten, we have to conclude that the ability to write was extremely rare among the peasant population.

The fact that the circumstances of writing were completely different from what they are today doesn’t mean that the motives were. According to Anna Kuismin the most common reasons for grabbing a pen were religious activity, nationalistic fervour, taking care of a position of trust, philosophical thinking or literary ambitions (a wish to become a published author). There was also a miscellaneous group of writers who had ended up pouring their thoughts on paper because of a specific situation in life, such as being in prison. Some inmates received teaching in letters while being incarcerated.

***

The ability to write wasn’t a means for upward social mobility in the 19th century. Deborah Brandt doesn’t believe that it will be that even now, in the midst of the breakthrough of mass writing. She sees that the social labels and stigmas of gender, ethnicity and class will always out power whatever technical skills and other knowledge capital an individual has managed to gather.

The skills or reading and writing, which are most often lumped together under the concept of literacy, affect society’s successfulness both in economic and cultural terms in a big way, even when they don’t necessarily benefit the individuals directly. Gross national product and other indicators of national affluence correlate strongly with the population’s literacy rates.

Writing is central in societies based on services, such as Finland. The economy revolves nowadays around symbols instead of concrete goods. Services are both supplied and administered through texts. Social media is a good example of the influence of writing on economy. Picture can tell a thousand words but the most influential social media outlets are based on text (services such as Instagram of Pinterest do focus on pictures, but text still has a vital role in giving the pictures meaning and context).

Finland’s road from a developing country to a PISA test champion started in 1866 with the law on public schools. The progress was slow in the beginning, but slow and steady often wins the race, as in this case. Compulsory education from 1921 on cemented the ability to write as a basic civic skill.

Finland’s situation can be compared to that of the United States, where during the early 20th century population’s literacy exceeded what was expected and needed for most working class jobs. This created a surplus of knowledge and made the labor market flexible. That flexibility made the transitioning from an industrial society into a knowledge society possible and relatively smooth.

Is there a knowledge surplus being created also today and if so, what kind?

***

Let’s go back to Deborah Brandt’s ideas about the changes ushered in by mass writing. One of them is the relationship between reading and writing being turned upside down. Gone are the days when reading was a gateway to writing.

Brandt told a story at a conference in Umeå, Sweden, in 2012, in a seminar that dealt with the writings of the common people. This is how the story went: once there was a young man, who was interested in lizards as pets. He decided to open a website about taking care of lizards.

The website became so popular that he was approached by a publishing house. They wanted him to write a book about pet lizards for them to publish. The young lizard enthusiast grabbed the opportunity. When published the book sold several thousand copies. The first time author had finally found a book he was willing to read from cover to cover. His own.

Education has difficulties in keeping up with the evolving technology as well as changes caused by technology in the social sphere. Just like the youth in the 19th century, their modern counterparts will find ways of learning the needed skills themselves, if the institutions fail them.

What worries Brandt is the union between writing and economy. The “goodness” of literary artifacts isn’t measured by the scales of moral or democracy, but instead according to the logic of profit. Economic competition and literary productivity are intertwined. This threatens to create a situation where literary goods are being consumed faster than they can be made.

According to an old saying nothing is older than yesterday’s news, but more and more the relevance of news is being measured in minutes instead of days.

Main sources:

Brandt, Deborah: Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge University Press, New York 2001.

Deborah Brandt’s and Anna Kuismin’s lectures at Vernacular literacies – Past, Present and Future –seminar at the Univeristy of Umeå 13.-15. June 2012.

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