Twitterature book cover

After all: New Twitter competition

We announces a new Twitter competition for E&T readers.

The world of literature as we know it is no more, it appears.

There's no longer a need to struggle with moral complexities and outdated language of 'Hamlet', bumping along the tricky hexameters of 'The Iliad' or propping the porch door open with 'War and Peace'. From now on, all the world's greatest books can be retold in snippets of no more than 140 characters.

Welcome to 'Twitterature' - the laconic concept introduced in the eponymous Penguin paperback penned by Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin.

It was the book waiting to happen since that very historic moment when Stephen Fry - modern genius and former QI colleague of mine - got stuck in a lift and, having nothing else to do while waiting for salvation, decided to inform the world about his plight in the following rather down-to-earth (despite the elevation) text message: 'I am stuck in a lift on the 26th floor of Centre Point. Hell's teeth. We could be here for hours. Arse, poo and widdle.' It was the first tweet out of seven sent by Fry during his 45 minute spell in the lift.

Thus the previously well-kept secret that was Twitter hit the headlines. Within months it has become not just a new way of communicating, but a new lifestyle, with users receiving and responding to the birdlike ejaculations from people around the globe, about first-hand experiences of a protest in a media-quietened Tehran, positive protestations against US denouncement of the NHS, or observations of plant life from a garden shed in Surbiton. Now, it seems, Twitter has become a new literary genre too.

As the compilers of the above-mentioned pioneering paperback themselves note with characteristic modesty in the Introduction:

'We have created our generation's salvation, a new and revolutionary way of facing and understanding the greatest art of all arts: Literature.'

And as if this statement is not enough, they hammer their point home in verse:

'And allow us now to open/The eternal aperture/To the brilliant soul of common man/We present to you - Twitterature.'

One obvious conclusion is that Aciman and Rensin are much better writers (twitterers?) than poets.

'Paradise Lost' by John Milton:

Tweet one: 'Falling unto the abyss!!! I'll talk more about why in several hundred pages to avoid any confusion.'

Tweet two: 'Oh my god I'm in Hell.'

'Inferno' by Dante Alighieri:

'I am having a midlife crisis. Lost in the woods. Should have brought my iPhone.'

And here's a somewhat more up-to-date 'The Old Man and the Sea' by Ernest Hemingway:

Tweet one: 'Forty days since I have caught a fish. And'

Tweet two: 'The boy brings me the paper. We talk about baseball. I<3 DiMaggio.'

For those few who are not too familiar with twittering, <3 is an 'emoticon', indicating a heart (on its side, in a vaguely astronomical tradition).

So far, so good. Yet, there's one point at which I disagree with the respected compilers. Twitterature as a concept is not new. It has existed for years.

Take, for example, the following beautifully crafted 'tweet' by Oscar Wilde: 'I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.'

Or this one by Anton Chekhov: 'I dreamt that what I had thought was reality was a dream, and what I had thought was a dream was reality.'

Perhaps a particularly unsuccessful attempt to understand Twitter inspired Samuel Beckett to tweet: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'

Or this brief self-revelation by Russian 1920s-30s satirist and absurdist Daniil Kharms: 'Today I wrote nothing.'

It was not only literary classics who could have made brilliant twitterers had they - for the better or for the worse - lived up to our age of smart hand-held devices other then a fountain pen. Michael Faraday, one of Britain's greatest scientists and engineers, was also a prolific diarist and letter-writer - as testified by the IET's comprehensive collection of his correspondence in six weighty volumes, of which five have come out already and the sixth is due to be released later this year.

Just listen to these real-life Faraday's 'tweets' selected from the above-mentioned volumes and archive sources with the help of the IET's hard-working archivists Anne Locker and Sarah Hale:

Fara-tweet one: 'I have ordered apparatus already for the experimental investigation of this and only want time.'

Fara-tweet two: 'I keep dreaming away with views of matter & its powers.'

Fara-tweet three: 'I am weary of the spirits - all hope of any useful investigation is gone but as some persons still believe in them and I continuously receive letters, I must bring these communications to a close.'

...although I confess he may have overshot his 140-character limit on that last one.

Although Faraday did not believe in 'spirits' and probably wouldn't have enjoyed the thought of becoming one, I often wonder what would he tweet about now? Would it be the issues of funding for scientific and technological research ('An intelligent country ought to recognise scientific men among its people as a class'), exposing alchemists, quacks and pseudo-scientists or the problems of protecting the environment ('surely the river which flows for so many miles through London ought not to be allowed to become a fermenting sewer.')

I'd like to invite you, dear readers, to put on the time-beaten mantle of Faraday and to imagine what he would twitter about today, if given a chance. For the first round of this new Fara-tweet competition, let us think what he would say about modern means of communication: the Internet, social networking sites, iPhones - and Twitter itself of course. The entries should be no more than 140 characters long.

The fair and incorruptible jury consisting of the IET Archivist Anne Locker, E&T columnist historian Justin Pollard and myself will appraise your entries on the grounds of humour, factual relevance, authenticity and style (in that order!) and will announce a winner who will receive two volumes (of his or her choice) of the IET's 'Correspondence of Michael Faraday'. And the author of the best Fara-twitter of the year will become one of the first lucky owners of this unique edition's final volume.

Please send your entries to the first round of Fara-tweet - 'Faraday on modern communication devices' - to vvitaliev@theiet.org by 15 April 2010. Or send your own tweet to @FaraTweet. You will then be able to follow the updates on Twitter at http://twitter.com/faratweet .

Happy Fara-tweeting!

<3 and Brb (be right back - in issue 6)

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