By extension

OUR local newspaper continues to please me, and this issue has a book review. It says the book has a ``forward.'' Perhaps this says more than I ever could about book reviews, and while we're on that disconcerting subject, why don't the reviewers review some of the incomparable output of these persistent laborers in the mines of culture -- the professors who write weighty exegeses under the demands of ``publish or perish,'' aiming largely at various quarterlies that exist only to oblige professors who, etc., under the demands of publish or perish? To me, these are sad people, caught in the snaffled snare of an academic delusion, so to speak, forced by an untenable premise to a ridiculous conclusion. Fortunately, I suppose, few people know about these quarterlies and their contents, or understand why they exist and, most of all, print such stuff. I doubt if anybody in particular was paying attention, but my guess is that the ``publish or perish'' idea can be blamed on Abraham Lincoln and the farmers. I've heard some opinions that gobbledygook and officialese came into our culture with the Brain Trust of the New Deal, but that seems to be untrue. The tendency was by that time more than a tendency, and well established with the Extension Service -- a branch of the Department of Agriculture which was created in Lincoln's time to further the homestead program.

It was the Extension Service that made the public printer available to the land-grant professors, who were invited to prepare pamphlets, soon to be called ``bulletins,'' which could be given to the rural people to help them in everything from prenatal care to building root cellars. All at once every professor who could clone an apricot became an author, and it was far more important that he could clone an apricot than that he could write. Indeed, even a fleeting look at any 10,000 government bulletins will show that cloning apricots has a tendency to discourage skill in basic communications.

There is infinite pleasure, I agree, in reading a bulletin that tells you how to make a hay tedder with a bicycle and two old pitchforks, but part of the pleasure relates to Goldsmith's observation that Dr. Johnson would make his little fishes talk like whales. Yet bulletin after bulletin appeared, coming mostly from unskilled writers, and there developed a style for the things that any lover of prose will deplore. Big words were a must -- never ``use'' anything you can ``utilize,'' and this is where we got things like finalize and many another obscenity that will, sadly, find its way into the dictionary.

The bulletins thus available were reliable in their information, served a useful purpose, and advanced our prosperity, but they also thrust upon us the bad habits of would-be poetasters. Maybe Burns would call it the jargon o' the schools. The footnote and the appendix became revered, and pictures became ``figures.'' Unconscious humor, born of inattentive gravity, offers some redemption, but I think in general it passed over most rural heads. I remember a ``factor'' in the haying operation was ``custom of the farmer,'' and there was one ``selection of 2,000 random numbers.'' What's random about a selected number? The government bulletin achieved a peak when two professors at the University of Ontario produced a how-to bulletin that told professors how to prepare government bulletins. One of the professors assured me the ``literature'' was intended for the esoteric use of those concerned, and I would not be expected to understand it. Strange, seems to me, from a profession somewhat related to the advancement of culture. But under the extension program, the lowly professor of the cow college became an author, and his importance was related to his publications.

Extended, stupidly, to other faculties of other institutions, the poor joker was expected to go thou and do likewise, and thus was born ``publish or perish.'' Footnoted with sources, credits, acknowledgments, and ibids the article appears, usually in thoroughly uninviting language (Aristotle says language should be pleasing), and asks us to consider the paralysis and exile in George Moore's ``A Drama in Muslin.'' Why don't the reviewers pay attention? The poor fellow merits a good word, and our pity. Forward or backward.

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