Thursday, June 5, 2014

Emoji Dick, Classical Literature, and Pictograph

Waiting at the GM house while our brakes were serviced, I was reading through a Smithsonian Magazine that happened to be laying on the table. Apparently, according to a short article, a data engineer named Fred Benson compiled a translation of Moby Dick written completely in emoji. The book is, not surprisingly, called Emoji Dick and it costs $200 for the hardback (or $40 for the softcover)--there's a website, but I can't bring myself to link it.

Okay, where do I start? I can certainly understand an interest in emoji  and I can understand an interested in Moby Dick, which the Smithsonian article called "a pinnacle of American Romanticism." What I cannot understand is turning Moby Dick into emoji and peddling it for $200? It's literary sacrilege. Just because classics are no longer under copyright, and are therefore open to this sort of projects, does not mean they should be used in this way.

Of course, this isn't the only classical novel that has gotten this sort of mis-treatment. Several years ago, a jerk named Seth Grahame-Smith appropriated Jane Austen's classic, Pride and Prejudice, and turned it into a zombie novel. He took something genius someone else had produced and slaughtered it. There's nothing original in that novel, it's Austen's structure and wording (sort of) with more gore and this guy Grahame-Smith is making money from it.

But you know, in his defense, at least he's not charging $200 per copy for his rip-off. Benson is, A novel that he didn't even re-write into emoji, but rather paid minions he found on Amazon to do. A project crowd-funded by a Kickstarter campaign. He edited it, that's all. Thankfully, he's not trying to claim it's a work of genius, just that's it's a work. Sadly, he's charging an arm and a leg for something for which other people have paid.

Where I run into the biggest issue isn't actually with the fact that he's torturing classics for profit. My biggest issue is that he called emoji "a new mode of expression." I'm sorry, but the use of pictograph is far from new. We can put them on our iPhones, that's new, but pictographs have been a form of communication for thousands of years. In fact, pictographs are the most archaic form of communication. Cave paintings are pictographs, hieroglyphics are pictographs. The only difference between elegant pictograph languages and emoji is that emoji is more simplistic. For emoji, cute is more important than communication.

So if anything, translating a book into emoji, which is a form of pictograph, is a big step backward. It's not language evolving, it's language devolving. We have words, grammar and punctuation now. We are capable of higher forms of communication--though I would argue that hieroglyphs are extremely sophisticated, certainly more so than emoji will ever be. Unless you take into consideration that as a pictograph "language" emoji breaks to language barrier and is capable of facilitating communication among people who have no common language, but that's not what's being said here. No one is saying this book is a leap forward because it can be read and understood by people who speak more than one language.

Unfortunately, what's being said here is just simply: isn't this cool. Oh, and that this brilliant piece of American literature has been turned into something that, in the words of Benson, only works as a conceptual piece. It doesn't even work as a translation unless you've read and fairly well understood the book. What's further disconcerting is that the Library of Congress has acquired it, offering it a credibility it might otherwise not have received. Their rationale works, though, in that it's an artifact of our time and will be much more valuable in the future when the emoji fad fades and cellphones are history.

Personally, I think it's unfortunate that our generation and the modern culture takes great works for granted. That we've somehow started looking at the classics as fair game. These books should be revered and respected, not exploited for profit. I certainly think it's relevant that Benson is a data engineer, not an English or arts major. The humanities are going away, even in college curricula, as we're becoming less interested in our histories and more interested in science and technology. STEM is fine, it's fantastic even and necessary, but when they take a piece of that history they don't much care to acknowledge and deconstruct it, that should not be acceptable to anyone.