Friday, September 19, 2008

A post about Ike that ignores the plights of everyone who suffered it

Many people I know live in the Houston area in the Gulf Coast, so I have followed the news concerning Hurricane Ike with more interest than befits the typical Phoenix resident. Among the pre-landfall news I found an article on the Fox News website about the hurricane that leveled Galveston in September of 1900. The article contained a delightful little gem: a personal account of the storm by Isaac M. Cline, who was the senior Weather Bureau employee in Galveston at the time the storm.

By 8 p.m. a number of houses had drifted up and lodged to the east and southeast of my residence, and these with the force of the waves acted as a battering ram against which it was impossible for any building to stand for any length of time, and at 8:30 p.m. my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but eighteen were hurled into eternity.

Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building. I was nearly drowned and became unconscious, but recovered though being crushed by timbers and found myself clinging to my youngest child, who had gone down with myself and wife.

This is a factual description of a newsworthy event; it also happens to be a well constructed and beautiful bit of prose. Each word moves the reader forward; the sentences are direct. The topic is sensational without adding verbal complexity, and the writing style delivers that exceptionalness with a simple structure and an elegant touch of poetic imagery. And I like the phrase hurled into eternity.

This writing style has largely been lost in the modern delivery of news. During my lifetime both news reporters and the sources they quote muddy their message with a slew of passive phrases, inverted sentences, and clumsy prepositional phrases preceding both subject and verb. If I were reckless with my speculation then I'd guess that spending years as students writing about boring topics has conditioned most of us to write automatically with a style that belies the emptiness of our content.

Here's my translation of Cline's account to the modern style, exaggerated.

By 8 p.m., to the east/southeast of my residence, a number of houses had drifted up and gotten lodged. With the force of the waves they battered buildings, and standing for any length of time became an impossibility. By 8:30 p.m., my residence went down. Of the fifty safety-seekers inside, only eighteen survived.

Among the dead was my wife. Losing consciousness and nearly drowning, I recovered despite by crushed by fallen trees, and I clung to my youngest child.

That's my best effort, anyway. This inverted, unpoetic style is especially prolific on the Internet amongst us amateurs. There exists a popular, comforting delusion that chopping up a sentence into pieces and rearranging the order of those pieces makes a passage more interesting, but in actuality it lessens the gravity of the content.

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