Never Having to Say You're Sorry
Like all truly great literature, the Encyclopedia rests upon a vision, in this case one of humankind never having to compose a letter again, and it gives the reader general principles to guide him or her through life (avoid the words death, died, and killed). Also like great literature, it raises moral questions: Is it right to present another person's words as my own, even if I paid $16 for them? Finally (here's the science fiction part) it conjures the possibility of a world transformed--a world in which computers loaded with the Lifetime Encyclopedia's letters are automatically set to natter back and forth to each other, consoling, arguing, apologizing, wheedling, buying and selling, all without any spark of human feeling. That's just like some families I know, minus holiday dinners.
This work of art, however, could use improvement, so I would suggest a third expanded edition. Comprehensive as the Lifetime Encyclopedia is, it omits certain crucial kinds of human experience that a revised edition should include. There are no entries for groveling, lying to children about the fate of pets ("Fluffy went to see friends in Iowa"), blaming someone else, obfuscation, whining, or rationalizing incompetence. If it is genuinely going to be a lifetime encyclopedia, it will also have to take age and gender into account better than it presently does. It mostly assumes a unisex author when we all know men and women often take different approaches to writing letters, just as young people and old people do. Here are some suggested opening lines for the next edition:
Birthdays, by increasing age of sender:
"I'm sorry I forgot your birthday, grandma."
Excuses, making, by age of sender:
"I know how much you and dad were looking forward to my
graduation, but a few things slipped my mind this semester."
Passive/aggressive letter, mother:
"Of course, I will do what you want. I have always been there for you from the day of your very painful birth."
Passive/aggressive letter, father (complete text):
"Check enclosed. Again."
The Lifetime Encyclopedia's most striking omission is its failure to follow where its own millennial, sci-fi vision leads. There are no letters computers might send to each other, addressing their concerns, successes, failures, and life experiences. As one author to another, here are my suggestions for a few opening sentences to redress that flaw. Mr. Meyer is free to plagiarize them:
"We never really communicate with each other. You're a Mac and
I'm a PC."
As millennial visions go, there are worse ones than computers endlessly chattering and humans not writing letters. Some of us already put that vision into practice. They are called "children."
"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.
RETURN TO NOVEMBER 1999 TABLE OF CONTENTS.