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'Whither Literacy?'

May 17, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 20

Rudy Baum's editorial "Whither Literacy?" struck a nerve (C&EN, March 8, page 3). I am both a bibliophile and a little obsessive about spelling and typography. I have two comments:

As someone who has dabbled in Web design, I think that the disappearance of Greek letters and italic typefaces from XML—extensible markup language—is more a commentary on the competence of XML designers (or perhaps on the laziness of XML users) than it is on XML itself.

It is not difficult to define tags to render italics nor for ASCII character references to render Greek letters. It's no more difficult to use them than it is to insert such items into text in a word processor. The most commonly used word-processing software these days stores its information as XML, after all.

As to the idea that video will replace books and other forms of text, balderdash! Video might suffice for the exchange of unsophisticated or highly emotional content but not for highly technical information or nuance. It's just that the majority of people do not enjoy reading. They never have enjoyed reading any more than the majority of people enjoy running three consecutive six-minute miles. I think Isaac Asimov's 1973 essay, "The Ancient and the Ultimate" still covers this argument very well: Reading for pleasure and information will never be the preserve of the hoi polloi, but it will never disappear, either.

Daniel J. Berger
Bluffton, Ohio

I agree 100% with Baum's editorial with respect to the decline of typography. Furthermore, the digital age has also exposed our weaknesses in simple spelling, diction, grammar, punctuation, and syntax due to our reliance (compounded with increasing laziness) on spell-checking programs.

It breaks my heart to read, in print or on-line, gross mistakes that are supposed to be written, edited, and published by professionals. Sad, sad, sad.

Melissa Crane
Edmonton, Alberta

In his editorial, Baum draws attention to the complexity and value of traditional typography in paragraphs three and four, and then sweeps it all away with the unconditional surrender contained in the fatalistic first sentence of paragraph five: "I know, print's days are numbered, so who cares?"

This sentence deserves to be less fatalistic and more nuanced, as in, "True, the future of print on paper is uncertain, but the future of text on electronic media is not, so long as text remains the definitive mode of communication among educated, literate people, especially scholars."

Deanna Morrow
Hall Stone Mountain, Ga.



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