Priceless Words

I’m in the middle of The Book of Killowen by Erin Hart, and came across the following passage that made me stop with my mouth practically hanging open. The character is talking about Irish  illuminated manuscripts.

“Well, think of it: there used to be whole libraries full of books like this, copied out by hand…all the time and effort those poor buggers the monks put into each one. We take it for granted now, don’t we – the printing press, the copy machine, the Internet. I mean, words lose their value, in a way, don’t they, when you’re drowning in them?”

So many things jumped into my poor brain. How computers have reduced penmanship for one. But we are drowning in words and I think that has cheapened them. Look at how we contract into slang for twitter and texting. Look how fast and easy it is to share a quick post on Facebook rather than writing out a letter, addressing the envelope, going to the post office for a stamp.

Then there’s the old debate among writers about using a keyboard or paper and pen. Obviously we use what works best for us. Personally I love the computer because I type faster than I write and when those words are flowing that’s valuable.

Sometimes though, there will be a need, an urge, to slow down. To pick up a pen, place it to paper, and watch each letter form. To see the birth of a word slowly, trailed in ink.

I prefer to take notes by hand because the material sticks in my mind. If I type notes, the information doesn’t seem to fix onto the brain cells. It’s as if that slower formation of words gives my thoughts time to absorb.

So now picture those ancient illuminated manuscripts. Think about the time each and every letter took. And not just the time to form the letter but also the time to make the paper, gather the nuts and herbs and bark to mix and create the ink. All that work before being able to even dip the quill and create an individual letter, a whole word, that became art.

As a writer, I strive to make words into story and am happy if it comes out readable. A much lower level of standard than those monks, for whom each individual letter was highly valued.

So what do you think? Do we undervalue words now? Have they become cheap? Or maybe it’s not the words that are cheap these days, but our time to write. We carve out a few seconds in the day to type out a quick tweet, rather than sitting down on a Sunday afternoon with pen and stationary to answer letters.

My oldest sister still sends out cards and letters. With note cards she sometimes makes herself. I value those.

Even though (I’m ashamed to admit) I rarely take time to answer.


8 thoughts on “Priceless Words

  1. Its like with everything else… we and our technologies are evolving. Its what happens over time. Think back how horses used to be for traveling instead of cars, trains, planes nowadays. Think about how everything used to be made by hand and now we have factories with machines/computers who do the work for us. Video, TV, photography…we all know those changes for sure.
    The change our grandparents or parents saw in their lifetime makes me wonder what I will see in the future.
    With every new comes the tear for the good old way or the sigh for finally getting something better. It always depends on how you see things yourself. I still do write cards for Christmas and birthdays as you know, since it feels special for me and I love to receive cards. But then the normal mail is just soooooo slow. Its way easier to send a message over the internet to the other side of the world.

    I think a lot of times writing something with a pen has become special, just like riding a horse has become a sport or hobby instead of a need to get from A to B.


    • True. Like lacemakers that were little girls tied to chairs making lace by candlelight and blind by the time they were 15. I think what got me about the words in that book though, was the thought that we are surrounded by words now,and people write all the time, with tweets and iphones and what have you. As compared to when we wrote letters and talked to each other more. So do words then become cheap because they are everywhere? In a way we are almost becoming isolated writers rather than social visitors. You’re right about changes in society though. It’s always been like that.


  2. When my mom and dad passed away this last year, I spent a good deal of time going through things they had saved. Both my parents had excellent handwriting — my mother in particular. Each letter was beautifully formed — almost like calligraphy. I recall my mom and uncle talking about how their teachers used to make them relentlessly practice penmanship, striving to get the form of the letters just right. My uncle, a lefty, was forced to write with his right hand and the task was far more difficult for him. Still, his handwriting was lovely.

    And then I ran across their yearbooks, filled with the notes from their classmates. Guess what? Not everyone had beautiful handwriting. In fact, much was sloppy — just as carelessly formed as many of us write today. I’ve altered my opinion of The Demise Of Modern Penmanship And The Written Word. I think it takes an artist’s mind and heart to coax beauty from the strokes of a pen and give them meaning. Not everyone is an artist. That is as it should be.

    (Oh, and that horse-thing? Consider this: Horses are far better cared for today, as the objects of sport and hobby, than they were when they were necessary for daily life)


    • Of course in our school annuals we were in a hurry, scribbling quick thoughts rather than writing with the teacher breathing down our necks. I remember those penmanship classes well…I usually failed.


  3. For me, when I read that section in The Book of Killowen, I resonated with the concept of losing the value of words – not simply through the sheer number, but also through the medium. We are so quick to respond, to use an abbreviated phrase, to fire off a tweet, a smiley face, a thumbs up that we don’t take the time to use our words as valuable tools of communication. I spent most of the morning discussing (facilitating really) a conversation about the meaning of four very common words. The discussion revolved around perception, context and delivery and brought all of us closer in understanding and relating to each other by sharing the meaning or value behind the words we were choosing to use. When we labor over a word it takes on an intangible value. We are losing that value and replacing it with quantity and speed. Thank you Erin Hart for inspiring the conversation and to Lisa for bringing the conversation to the forefront.


    • Great thoughts here, Kathy. I’m curious which four common words you were discussing! I think you captured what I was trying to say, and said it much more succinctly. The perception, context, and delivery. And we do lose the value of the words when replaced with speed. I recently heard a radio interview with a man retiring from working on the Oxford dictionary. He talked about carrying around a little notepad and jotting down words he heard. It reminded me of writers being told to do that years ago. I wonder if we’d value words more if we did slow down and take the time to pull out a notepad and write down a single word that caught our interest.


  4. I’ve always loved writing by hand, though my hand doesn’t always (it gets sore quickly). I used to practice my handwriting, in fact, and can still make it look nice when writing cards and letters to friends — something I’ve done much more often since we started traveling. (By the way, would you like a postcard? I don’t have your address but if you email it to me I’d love to write you.)

    I still do my morning pages with a pen and notebook (any excuse to buy notebooks!) but to save time and fatigue I abbreviate a lot: “this morning’s writing” becomes “this AM’s wrtg.” I like the relative obscurity of even my neatest handwriting — I can’t skim it quickly, so when I write by hand, I’m not distracted by what I just wrote. On the computer, though, I can quickly reread my pages of words and get tempted into editing them (or moaning over how bad they are). But when I have a lot to say and need to get the thoughts out quickly, nothing beats the computer.

    Words may be cheaper, but those of us who cherish them will always recognize value and worth when we see it. 🙂


    • Your last line needs to be a quote. As in I need to write it down and stick the paper above my desk. I remember the love of a new notebook and a new pen. I remember the possibilities when holding blank paper. Those emotions don’t seem as strong with the laptop. I also remember being afraid people would read over my shoulder. Probably why my handwriting is tiny and legible to only a few! I also hold my paper completely sideways like you see some left handed writers doing, even though I’m not. Once, many years ago, a stranger asked me if I was writing in Japanese. I have no idea what gave her that impression. Unless, now that I think about it, she was being sarcastic because it was so illegible…


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