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.