`Text books' only illustrate the spread of stupidization

December 04, 2005|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- Do u lk bks? I lk bks lotz. Dats y dis sux.

OK, I'll stop now. The copy editor is giving me the stank eye.

If you are below a certain age, the foregoing is probably clear as Aruban seas. If you are above that same age, it is likely as murky as Mississippi mud.

For the benefit of the latter, what you've just read is a few words written as a text message - or at least my best approximation thereof. I can only be so fluent, after all, given that I am of middle age and this quasi-language of symbols and truncated words is mostly used by Kids These Days to communicate electronically with their peers. A translation in English would read as follows: "Do you like books? I like books lots. That's why this sucks."

"This" being the recent news that a cell phone company in Great Britain has enlisted a former English professor to create text message synopses of great works of literature as an alleged study aid for college students.

That's right: Great Britain, the nation that gave us Dickens, Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare, now gives us "text books," a new service offered by dot mobile, the aforementioned cell phone company. By April, it expects to have amassed a library of great English literature reduced to text message outlines. This would include John Milton's Paradise Lost, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and, yes, the complete works of William Shakespeare, wherein the most famous speech of a certain melancholy Danish prince would be rendered as follows: "2b? Nt2b? ???"

For the benefit of the text-challenged, that's, "To be or not to be, that is the question."

The cell phone company says this will be a "valuable learning tool." I'd have chosen another description.

Yes, I'm being a little snotty here. But I swear, it has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Jacobs making us slog like a death march through Pride and Prejudice back in high school, without any fancy high-tech shortcuts to help us.

OK, so maybe it does have a little bit to do with that. But the other reason, the main reason, is the one I already gave.

I like books.

There is wisdom and insight in them that cannot be readily reduced to a few characters on a cell phone screen. There is music and cadence in them that you simply cannot transmit with symbols and emoticons.

Yes, I know what it's like to be a time-pressed college student. Heck, I was once one myself. And I'll confess that I probably cracked a CliffsNotes or two when I was too jammed up - or, dare I say it, lazy - to do the assigned reading. I will even concede the class of '06 faces pressures we couldn't conceive back in the days of human receptionists and rotary dial telephones.

For all that, though, I find it hard to believe the real issue here is time. How busy do you have to be when CliffsNotes are too demanding?

No, for my money, this is simply another example of a growing stupidization - put your dictionary away, I made it up - that infects our culture like a virus, rendering it faster than ever before, but also dumber and more shallow. And apparently not just our culture. I mean, I had always thought of stupidization as an American affliction, so I don't know whether to be relieved or appalled to see it also showing up in Britain, where erudition was raised and eloquence keeps a summer home.

2b? Nt2b? ???

Give me a break.

Better yet, give me a book.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@herald.com.

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