Zinsser on Friday

No Place Like “Home”

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By William Zinsser


 

My wife is locked in semantic combat with The New York Times. As a historian she has long made extensive use of the free online Times archives for her research, grateful for its boundless access to historical information.

Recently the Times began to charge a fee for that access. Fair enough; the newspaper is entitled to get paid for such a heroic act of retrieval. That’s not the issue.

The issue is that the Times will waive the fee for customers who already subscribe to the paper by “home delivery.” But what is “home delivery?” That depends on the age of the Times salesperson on the phone trying to explain the new system.

In our household “home delivery” means that a physical object—a newspaper—is brought to the subscriber’s “home” every morning. The home itself is also a physical object—a house, an apartment, a trailer, or some other edifice where families are raised, meals are cooked, and memories are kept. Wherever our family has perched, the Times has been there to greet us every morning, lying on the doormat, faithful as an old dog.

When the Times salesperson, presumably a child of the digital generation, asked my wife for proof that we receive “home delivery” she gave him the name of our independent delivery company. He didn’t know what service that might be. He wouldn’t accept the name and insisted on proper proof of home delivery. What better proof, my wife wondered, than the corporate name of the elves who drive trucks through the sleeping city with their sacred bales of newsprint?

Finally it dawned on her that the Times person selling “home delivery” was not picturing an actual home. “Home” was the home page of the Times on a computer screen. He had evidently never thought of his employer’s product as a physical object, never heard of “newsboys,” kids enshrined in American folklore for their ability to toss a newspaper from a moving bicycle so that it skidded to a perfect stop on the customer’s front porch. That boy in a visored cap was long a standard figure in comic strips and Hollywood movies; many titans of the American dream began their rags-to-riches ascent as newsboys.

Was that teenage labor force now unremembered? It came back to me that when my grandson spent a summer with me in New York a few years ago he never looked at The New York Times that I brought in every morning from outside our apartment door, where it had been home delivered. He got the day’s news from a computer that was already somewhere inside the house.

No winner has yet emerged in the case of Historian v New York Times. Neither side understands what the other is talking about. Seeking further clarification, my wife consulted the Times web page and found that the paper has added three more “home delivery” options: the NYTimes.com smartphone app; the NYTimes.com tablet app, and the NYTimes.com all-digital access app.

The Historian was not pleased to learn of these additional routes to her grail of research; they didn’t sound much like “home delivery.” Such is the linguistic crevasse that separates the generations. In another decade, “home” will no longer be the place where Robert Frost says they have to take you in. Home will be any place that has a computer.

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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