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Personal essays

Writing - Essay from Newsletter 19

The power of the written word

The storm

I was midway through reading a post that would go on to fill 25 tweets.

A tweet storm.

I hate those.

It should be a blog post, or an article, or a chapter in a book.

But if it was, few people would read it.

According to Pew Research, one quarter of Americans have not read a book in the past year.

I was a little relieved. I thought it would have been worse than that.

I don’t know if Audio books count - I listen to most of the non-technical books I “read”. That way I can “read” while I’m out for a walk or driving somewhere.

So we tweet or post on Facebook. We post pictures on Snapchat or Instagram. Crabby old folks like me still write long form posts and even books for dozens of people to read.


I don’t understand why many videos are videos.

A friend posted a video of people in four rectangles on a zoom call talking to each other. I didn’t get a thing out of a video that audio wouldn’t have conveyed. In fact, had I produced the audio I would have cut it in half and eliminated the false starts and the one talking over the other and the silence til someone realized the question had come to them.

And few people would have listened to it.

People love video - even when there’s nothing visual about it.

I’ve been struggling with this as I produce sample videos ahead of a course I’ll be offering. Videos tend to move too slowly for me.

Anil Dash tweeted (yes I read it on Twitter), “I know this makes me a cranky old man, but when I look up how to do stuff on the Internet, I want to read an article that’s maybe 600 words that I can skim. I definitely do not want to watch a YouTube video that’s been padded out to 10 minutes to feed the monetization algorithm.”


I can scan text if it’s moving too slowly. I can reread a bit if it went too fast. A proper article (and I would argue audio as well) is often cut more than it is padded.

Search and Persistence

I also love that with a book or an article, I can often quickly find the part I was interested and want to quote.

The information is indexed in my brain differently.

I’ve been thinking about writing a To Do app just for my own use and remembered reading this helpful article by Merlin Mann on Building a Better To-Do List.

This article was written fifteen years ago but I’d remembered reading it and went in search of it.

The first part identified the key elements of a To-Do and how to choose and describe each item. The second part focused on managing the list.

To Dash’s point, it may be that we’re cranky old men. Maggie can find videos she wants to revisit and skip directly to the relevant part. It may be that Dash and I grew up in a time of the written word.

Permanence and Perspective

I recently reread James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. The opening essay is breathtaking. It is sadly relevant sixty years after its writing and beautifully argued.

It is prescriptive - filled with advice that could be given today.

I’ve loved watching video interviews of him recently, but I can pick up his book and quickly find the passage that I half remember.

“Oh Daniel,” you say, “that’s so cute. You could just search for it on the internet.”

Get off my lawn.

Would Baldwin have written “My Dungeon Shook” as a letter to his nephew or would he have tweeted it out in little chunks?

Would it have been as effective?

He writes of “the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

A tweet like that today might be misunderstood to be addressing Corona. By the time I press “Publish” on this newsletter, the US will have lost 160,000 people to COVID19. Millions have contracted the disease and survived but will have organ damage. Those responsible for the policies that have ignored the science that resulted in way too many cases and deaths “have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”

But that’s not what Baldwin is talking about.

In an essay filled with a difficult to read portrait of the black experience in America, Baldwin offers hope, love, and acceptance along with a path forward. He explains that integration “means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

I reached for my copy and paged through this essay after talking to a neighbor yesterday who was asked if he might move back to Ireland.

I told him that if the election this fall is not a decisive rejection of where we currently find ourselves that I would consider where to move.

Baldwin says “no”.

He says, “this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.”

In the years that followed Baldwin’s piece, things began to change.

Not quickly.

At John Lewis’ memorial we saw that he’d dedicated a lifetime to helping push forward that change. We saw videos of the 1965 march to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettus bridge. We saw his speech at the march on Washington. We heard of his record of service and accomplishments in the Congress.

I just watched the Axios interview where Donald Trump was asked about Lewis and all he could say was, “he didn’t come to my innauguration.”

Lewis embodied Baldwin’s urging that “we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 19. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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