Brief Thoughts on Changing Language

I’m listening to Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, in which today I heard his description of a hummingbird: a “thumb’s bigness of burnished plumage.” Nice. The language in this book is amazing: such luxurious vocabulary! Hawthorne would never say “face” when he could say “visage” or even “physiognomy.” I love it.

High-schoolers aren’t assigned Dickens or Hawthorne as required reading any more, according to my grandchildren. I think it’s partly because our times are so different.  People are still human, with the same desires and needs, but our settings and habits are vastly different from those of the 19th century. But the turning away from the classics is partly because of the writing itself. Long, complex sentences, an elevated vocabulary, and leisurely story-telling are foreign to people raised on rapid-fire scene shifts in action movies and video games.

Literature will always reflect or be ahead of its time. I’m trying to learn to write shorter sentences, eschew obfuscation and use fewer dependent clauses, though it’s very difficult for me and I have to do a lot of editing of my stuff, so everything takes longer.  (See?) Whatever the style, however, good books are still being written. And I think that great writers like Dickens with his social conscience and Hawthorne with his mysticism would find much to appreciate in the books we (and our grandchildren) read now and will read in the future. I hope so, anyway!

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