Today, we ask, "Who writes our story?" The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Now and then, I get mail addressed to the "staff," or to the "writers," of The Engines of Our Ingenuity. The tacit assumption is that a group of people write this program; then the voice you hear recites it. I didn't fully appreciate how disturbing that is until I read a help-wanted ad in the New York Times:
Ghostwriter needed by physician to quickly prepare book for laymen from bare concept. Locate key articles and facts, prepare outline, write and edit manuscript. Subject: Control hypertension and blood lipids through dietary fiber and ions.
So, in some near future, another self-help book on diet and relaxation will turn up in the bookstores. It'll be attributed to a doctor who didn't locate the key articles, didn't prepare the outline, didn't write the book, and who didn't even edit the manuscript. I find that pretty frightening.
Technology and science suffer every time someone tries to tell their story with detached affect. If I ask you to write down my ideas, then my heart will not be in them. Worse yet, your heart won't be in them either. When that happens, technology and science become empty drums indeed. If you or I have ideas that're worth anything, we're obliged to write them down ourselves.
I drove off to work, thinking about that ad and listening to my car radio. An NPR essayist talked about politicians who write books. Hoover and Churchill were superb writers who produced superb literature. "Where are they today?" he wondered. "Maybe the public gets no more than it's willing to expect."
He mentioned JFK's book, Profiles in Courage -- a fine case in point. Kennedy wrote it as he lay in the hospital after back surgery, before he ran for president. It was straight history -- a carefully researched study of six acts of political heroism.
As the campaign heated up, Kennedy's opponents accused him of having used a ghostwriter. Kennedy had to scotch that one by producing drafts of the book in his own handwriting.
The problem goes beyond writing. It rises up as we live in a world of proxies -- secretaries calling on behalf of bosses, companies hiring writers to write on behalf of their engineers, people who are willing to have others live life on their behalf.
Many fine technical writers do write about the work of others. But such people always write under their own names. In the end, every writer worth reading writes in the first person -- maybe not in the matter of pronouns, but certainly in the matter of presence. At some level, every writer worth reading offers us the gift of self.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Anonymous advertisment in the the New York Times, Help Wanted section, Sunday, July 23, 1995.