There’s no evidence for a link between a decline in writing standards and texting. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty
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No, the internet is not destroying our ability to read and spell

If anything, we are living in an age of unprecedented literacy – in the Western world, at least. The internet just makes our pre-existing mistakes far more visible.

Immediacy is the attribute that most defines the internet. Everything, from shopping to films to pornography, lies, as the cliché has it, just a click away. Online life also brings us into close proximity with the opinions of others – friends, family and total strangers alike. It’s not always pretty of course, generally a reminder that people have a tendency to stupidity, that is often amplified by its appearing in black and white; what would ordinarily be laughed off down the pub as benign ignorance and quickly forgotten is taken a great deal more seriously when couched in the discursive context of an online debate, however inane that debate might be. (And one needn’t throw the first stone either – given the proliferation of opinion online it is likely we have all at least once in our life posted a comment on an internet forum that we wouldn’t care to stand over.)

Officialdom (and its officious henchmen) has long afforded the written word greater importance than the spoken variety, partly out of social prestige but often out of practicality – people, businesses and bureaucracies request something “in writing” to have a documented record of a commitment or an attestation. And not everyone, to be sure, writes to the same degree of elegance or ability. Texting (and, to a lesser extent, Twitter) has been the main bugbear of those Jeremiahs, who bewail falling standards in spelling, grammar and literacy. The reality is, however, that successive studies in various cultural contexts around the world have shown there to be no correlation between a decline in writing standards and SMS use. Standards have remained fairly constant. It is simply that the internet and social media have made what errors there are in spelling and punctuation far more visible these days. If anything, we are living in an age of unprecedented literacy – in the Western world, at least. Until two decades ago, the majority of people, once their formal schooling was over, rarely wrote anything longer than a shopping list or a Christmas card, and rarely was what they wrote intended for a readership of more than a handful of people. That has all changed, and the information revolution affords people greater opportunity to write on a regular basis, and, of course to expose what they write, good and bad, to a greater audience. Minority languages like Irish have found new life in written form online and Cantonese, previously thought of as beneath literary use even by its native speakers, who opted for written Putonghua instead, has, thanks to social media, blossomed into a living written language, and has been emblematic of the current protests in Hong Kong. If the internet has made people their own bureaucrats, it has also made them, in however fanciful a way, their own poets, journalists and chroniclers. 

Illiteracy is a different thing entirely. If you want a gauge for how reading and writing standards are falling or rising, the internet is not really the place to look, because the truly functionally illiterate are not present there. They are generally hidden, in official statistics as well as in society – wealthy countries usually trumpet 99 per cen literacy rates, but the sole metric used, by the CIA handbook, for instance, is people aged 15 or over having completed five or more years of schooling (UNESCO’s yardstick for youth literacy is slightly more demanding). The estimates for adult illiteracy in industrialised societies tend to be as high as 20 per cent (the National Literacy Trust puts the figure for England at 16 per cent). Many of these are people who slipped through the net of the education system and others whose reading and writing ability has declined through disuse – more than half of adult illiterates in France are over the age of 45. Two thirds of those adult illiterates are men, which is itself a direct inversion of the worldwide gender imbalance in illiteracy rates, where two thirds of those that cannot read or write are women. 

One is rarely exposed to illiteracy in everyday life – many of those who genuinely struggle manage to keep it a secret to all but family and close friends. In my bartending days, I once checked myself when a customer asked, during a particularly busy rush what beers we served (there were no brand logos on the taps to help him out) and I impatiently pointed to the chalkboards overhead. It quickly became clear that he wasn’t able to read them and, embarrassed, I made time to run through them with him. Occasionally I will be stopped by someone on the streets of Paris, pointing to an address on a computer print-out they are looking for but which they are not able to make out. They are invariably sub-Saharan Africans perfectly fluent in French, but this doesn’t mean that that social group are the most likely to be unlettered – at least 75 per cent of adult illiterates in France are native-born, having grown up speaking French alone. It is just that an immigrant’s straitened circumstances mean he or she cannot afford to go to lengths to hide his or her inability to read in the same way a native can. 

France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron recently caused an uproar when, in his first media interview after taking the job, he remarked that workers facing lay-offs in a factory in Brittany would have trouble finding other jobs because of illiteracy. Macron was not wrong (some 20 per cent of the workers in the factory were believed to have reading difficulties) but the blitheness of his comments was understandably wounding. The insensitivity of his remarks are symptomatic of the difficulty any educated person would have empathising with an illiterate person’s predicament. 

Most people these days agree that raising literacy standards can only be a good thing – though there are, of course, those of an authoritarian bent who disagree, like former Portuguese dictator Salazar, who saw a literate peasantry as a threat to his rule, and the Taliban, who take violent exception to girls being educated. Still, even in countries as unfree as North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, literacy, if not always part of a fully rounded education, is certainly taken seriously. In China, Mao even simplified the alphabet to make it easier for the peasantry to learn how to read, albeit depriving the written language of much of its richness. Traditional Chinese now survives only in the spheres which were then out of the PRC’s control – Taiwan, Macao and Hong Kong. It certainly doesn’t follow that literacy will, in of itself, bring about freer societies, nor, as we have seen, does it have comprehensive reach even in wealthy liberal democracies. It does, of course, make economic sense, both for individuals and societies, for people to be able to read and write. It is for this reason that “benefit of clergy” existed in times past, where someone would be spared the death penalty if they could read – a valuable economic commodity. Playwright Ben Jonson was one such beneficiary, escaping hanging for manslaughter in 1598 because of his education. This benefit had originally come about to give clerics the right to be tried by an ecclesiastical court but it was later modified to benefit anyone who could prove their literacy, reflective of the gradual “democratisation” of the educational franchise. 

Increased literacy, no doubt, ultimately has its cultural impact, as Richard Hoggart’s most famous work attested (as did the success of the very Pelican imprint which published it), and, as Dickens observed in Our Mutual Friend, “no one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot”. Still, literacy, once again, will not necessarily lead to cultural bounty – there are plenty of places in the world where most people can read or write but remain largely unmoved by things cultural. Literacy is not even a prerequisite for culture, as much of it predates mass literacy. The great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré never learned to read or write yet he was a tireless campaigner for education as mayor of his native village – in developing countries, it is often illiterate parents who are the most eager for their children to learn to read and write. But even literate parents in Western countries worry about their offspring – the older generation hail Harry Potter and the Twilight books as the cavalry rescuing teenagers from certain ignorance fostered by TV, video games and the internet. I tend to agree with Tim Parks that such books aren’t really a gateway drug for weightier literature, and neither do I think that reading would all of a sudden die out among younger people if it weren’t for J K Rowling or Stephanie Meyer. Illiteracy is a real problem for many adults (and children too) but it is engendered mostly by being locked into an environment where reading or the encouragement of it is absent. If your children are getting anywhere near books without having to step into a schoolroom, you need not worry too much, any more than that texting will destroy their ability to spell.

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage