I blame technology. The internet, email – neither of which I use – and the accursed laptop. I curse the laptop for two reasons. Firstly because I use it. Secondly because it encourages hopeless authorship. It's not that everyone with a laptop thinks they can write a book. The problem is that everyone with a laptop does write a book.
They arrive by the dozen, in my Beirut mail bag, unsolicited on my Beirut doorstep, in my European mail. A few are brilliant. Most are awful. They are packed with misspellings, bad grammar and often pseudo-anthropological jargon. "An Ontology of Abstraction and Concreteness" is the subtitle of one heavy volume I was generously handed after giving a lecture in Ottawa. "The Arab Mind as a Function of a Rational Epistemic Orientation" one chapter is entitled. "From Multidimensional Thinking to Dual and Dichotomous Thinking: The State of Intellectual Retreat," reads another. "Social Catalysts of Cultural Collapse." And on and on.
The foundation of the book isn't bad: that Westerners and Arabs think in different ways. The author uses four precious pages to describe the strengths of Arabic – the language is easier to spell than English; words for commonly used objects rarely overlap; it has a remarkable capacity for brevity; its verbal roots allow Arabic to coin new terms – but the book is buried in quotations from Nietzsche. "Negation of Negating Entities" is another chapter subtitle. The book almost has "Do Not Read" printed on the cover.
And this is far better than most. Many are in manuscript – there simply is, understandably, no publisher – and far too many are privately published. There may only be 10 copies in existence, but the writer can then call himself an "author" and bore us all. And can give me a conscience. I once chucked an unreadable manuscript PhD thesis on Pakistani literary "tropes" into my bin, but was conscious-stricken for weeks. However awful the work, I felt like a Nazi book-burner. Henceforth, I would lug numerous volumes around with me to leave in hotel rooms. Maybe the bellboy in Seattle would be interested in a history of anti-Zionism or the Filipina maid in Dubai in a doctoral thesis on Libyan flora. I gave several books on south-west Asia to my cook in Beirut – a lady from Togo – who absorbed every one and, I have to admit, predicted the murder of Benazir Bhutto weeks before her assassination.
But the hi-tech anthropological language now infects even lecture invitations. Not long ago, I received a letter from the "conference co-ordinator" of a major Canadian university which shall remain nameless. (A rich province of that great nation will be my only clue.) I was asked to give a 45-minute presentation to the meeting whose aim was "to challenge the mainstream hegemonic and ethnocentric discourse about radicalism and extremism ... in order to gain a better understanding of the multidimensionality of the problem". Needless to say, I let that one go by.
But how do I account for an even more recent laptop letter from the undergraduate head of a major British university debating society – the location of this academy is north-west of Hartlepool, in a riverside city with a 12th-century cathedral – who invited me to address its members. He was extending this invitation, he announced, because he found my reports on the Middle East "exstremely (sic) eluminating (sic)". Now I might just stretch some generosity to cover the misspelling of "extremely"; the X and the S are diagonally next to each other on the laptop. But the Molesworth-like "eluminating" for "illuminating"? Even the Latin origin is "illuminare". My hand reached out for my Beirut phone and I called Durham (yes, of course, this was the institution) only to have a young lady tell me that the undergraduate who wrote to me "doesn't always show his letters to me first". I guess she was the spell-checker for the debating society. I thought the laptop was supposed to do that.
I know they warn of misspelling with a red underline, which is why "recognize" rather than "recognise" and "favor" rather than "favour" keep slipping into British newspapers. But it is a fact – born out by almost every print-out that The Independent sends me – that emails are slovenly written, rife with misspellings, grammatically often incomprehensible. Trendy linguists may tell us that language is "evolving". It is not. SMSs aside – their codes are, after all, little more than a modern-day version of Morse code – emails are crippling our power to express ourselves.
Some months ago, The Independent published a long and wise article from Atlantic Monthly which suggested that the internet, Googling on laptops and dependency on computers were destroying our ability to "deep read". Readers of books, it seems, were experiencing ever greater difficulty in reading for any length of time. On a four-and-three-quarter-hour flight from Paris to Beirut, for example, I can usually read the entire French press (the paper version from the lounge at Charles de Gaulle airport) and up to 200 pages of a book.
Not so many of my fellow passengers. They put down their papers after a few minutes in the air and open up their laptop and skim through page after page of "documents". But when they turn to a book – usually a light novel – I notice that they are flicking through it. They are not reading. They are "surfing" the pages. At school, my English teachers would shout "concentrate" and "use your brains, boy". And we did. But now the internet does the concentration and the laptop is our brain. I am not alone out there. When a student in Georgia asked me two years ago if I could recommend "some good websites to learn about the Middle East", I asked him what was wrong with books. And the rest of the American students applauded my question.
I hate the "O tempora! O mores!" school of criticism. The "if-God-had-meant-us-to-fly-he-would-have-given-us-wings" argument holds no interest for me. Shouldn't the short-sighted (like me) have spectacles? It's just that I think we're so enamoured of hi-tech that we don't control it any more. We are not looking after ourselves.