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My wife looked at my recent post about Twitter, and said it reminded her of a story by E. B. White she used to read to her students back when she was teaching long ago. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, White wrote about the need to condense what was being written everyday into ever shorter pieces so that readers could keep up with writers. The ultimate result should be obvious, but here are a few paragraphs from the essay to savor. The whole essay, titled Irtnog, has been posted elsewhere. It appeared in 1927 in a collection of his essays, entitled Quo Vadimus?

There was a tremendous volume of stuff that had to be read. Writing began to give off all sorts of by-products. Readers not only had to read the original works of a writer, but they also had to scan what the critics said, and they had to read the advertisements reprinting the favorable criticisms, and they had to read the book chat giving some rather odd piece of information about the writer—such as that he could write only when he had a gingersnap in his mouth. It all took time. Writers gained steadily, and readers lost. . . Then along came the Reader’s Digest.

By 1939 there were one hundred and seventy-three digests, or short cuts, in America, and even if a man read nothing but digests of selected material, and read continuously, he couldn’t keep up. It was obvious that something more concentrated than digests would have to come along to take up the slack. . . .It did. Someone conceived the idea of digesting the digests. He brought out a little publication called Pith, no bigger than your thumb. It was a digest of Reader’s Digest, Time, Concise Spicy Tales, and the daily News Summary of the New York Herald Tribune. . . . [But still] readers felt themselves slipping. Distillate came along, a superdigest which condensed a Hemingway novel to the single word “Bang!” and reduced a long article about the problem of the unruly child to the words “Hit him.”

It was not until 1960, when a Stevens Tech graduate named Abe Shapiro stepped in with an immense ingenious formula, that a permanent balance was established between writers and readers. Shapiro was a sort of Einstein. He had read prodigiously; and as he thought back over all the things that he had ever read, he became convinced that it would be possible to express them in mathematical quintessence. He was positive that he could take everything that was written and published each day, and reduce it to a six-letter word. He worked out a secret formula and began posting daily bulletins, telling his result. Everything that had been written during the first day of his formula came down to the word “Irtnog.”

. . . The effect on the populace was salutary. Readers, once they felt confident that they had one-hundred-per-cent coverage, were able to discard the unnatural habit of focusing their eyes on words every instant. Freed of the exhausting consequences of their hopeless race against writers, they found their health returning, along with a certain tranquility and a more poised way of living. There was a marked decrease in stomach ulcers, which, doctors said, had been the result of allowing the eye to jump nervously from one newspaper headline to another after a heavy meal. With the dwindling of reading, writing fell off. Forests, which had been plundered for newsprint, grew tall again; droughts were unheard of; and people dwelt in slow comfort, in a green world.

White was prescient about many things. Is Irtnog just another word for Twitter?

One Reply to “Irtnog”

  1. Thanks for reprinting the above on Irtnog. It had crossed my mind that Twitter was 140 characters of Irtnog, but, as I feared, no one I spoke to had heard of it. I’d read it about 45 years ago, and clearly remembered the reference to Hemingway and “Bang”. And here I was fearing my memory was fading. I could not recall the E. B. White connection, but I feel better now.
    Thanks again.

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