I learned just the other day, Friday I think, that an old friend of mine is apparently very sick with lung cancer. Of course this is depressing news, especially given that he is only a few months my elder. His illness has not kept him from continuing to work, which in his case concerns writing. But he took out a bit of time from his main concern to reflect on the fact that as word spread of his illness, a torrent of messages arrived before his eyes giving testimony to the fact that people have actually been reading his stuff over the years. He quipped that this was not only emotionally much appreciated, but that it showed him that he had not just been reeling off words into the ether. You never know, he said, who might see and be influenced by an argument launched into cyberspace.
That remark struck me upside the head on Saturday afternoon. There I was, minding my own business reading the newspaper when what should I see in Colbert King's regular Washington Post column but my own name. It nearly knocked me off my chair. King quoted, without actually using quotation marks, a line or two from what I thought was my 2009 book Jewcentricity. Perhaps he did, but when I was later sent an electronic version of the piece by a friend in, of all places, Ra'anana, the link to my name referred back not to the book but to the 2006 essay in The American Interest, "The Madness of Jewcentricity," that in a sense launched it. It doesn't matter. What matters, as my sick friend suggests, is that the ether sometimes talks back to you.
After the end of the Sabbath, I wrote a note to Colby King thanking him for mentioning me, and thanking him, too, for a fine column on an important issue. In the process I sent him a pre-pub electronic version of the new, September–October issue of The American Interest, the bulk of which deals with issues of race and class in America. One article in particular, by Richard Thompson Ford, I drew to his attention as the best of the lot at least as I see it. I hope he reads the piece and recommends it in turn to his audience.
He wrote me back, thanking me for my note and for the issue. He said he was a strong admirer of my work, and had been reading it for years. Who knew?
Socrates had lots of reasons for disliking the idea of writing stuff down, but of course we only know that because Plato wrote it down. Socrates apparently never said anything about how disembodied speech, in the form of writing, could end up bringing ideas together without the people who articulated them. One can only imagine what he would think of today's very noisy ether.