My favorite library is located in downtown Boise. At first glance, the five-story redbrick building appears unassuming, like a strip-mall branch of the University of Phoenix. On closer inspection, it becomes clear something is askew. Above the bustle and friendly chatter of the patrons stands a giant sign bolted to the side of the building: LIBRARY!
In my time here, I have enjoyed this oversized exclamation point and how it differentiates the library from the other lesser libraries of Idaho and every other state. When I told my friends about this piece of enthusiastic punctuation, they called me out and scolded me for my persistent affinity with the exclamation point.
I picked up my love of this maligned punctuation mark from a woman I once dated. She was a homely Kansan, who would pock every sentence in her texts and e-mails with zinging ! or !! Rarely did she speak like this in person. An Art & Design student, she was quiet and well-mannered. She collected books on the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. And yet I appreciated this other side: her extroverted persona. Replying to her messages, I imitated her, flinging the “wow!s” and “ha!s” and that’s the “ticket!s” right back at her. I became adept at understanding her mood through our call-and-response. But when she was mad at me there would be nothing, no form of punctuation to end her words.
When I moved away for graduate school, and we broke up, I carried on peppering my daily digital communications with exclamation points: I caught up. I arranged meetings and readings. I joked. I lol-ed. I flirted. I asked women straight out. This simple line with point energized my writing with a peculiar enthusiasm I did not show in real life, or in my depressingly stoic fiction.
Right from the beginning of my MFA program, we were warned to stay away from the exclamation point. We were told you could use it three times in your writing career and no more. If we saw Denis Johnson or Lorrie Moore use the mark in one of their stories, we had to accept the nature of their literary fame and move on. This didn’t stop the occasional flurry. But our professors exercised them from our stories with a blunt pen stroke or a red ring around the offending mark, signaling the shame. We had failed. We had exclaimed. We were meant to be writing serious, literary fiction. Such works of literature did not need such exhortations. Forget about past masters—Poe, Hawthorne, Jewett—who invoked them aplenty, contemporary fiction consisted of periods, commas (Oxford preferred), long dashes, colons, and occasionally, a begrudged semicolon. Sentences were to be terse and masculine and contain strong verbs, be Anglo-Saxon.
The discourse of the current election feels like one giant exclamation point. Time after time, the rhetoric of both parties has reached incendiary levels of mudslinging and vitriol. But Donald J. Trump…Where to begin?
For months, I have been doing my best to avoid the madness of the Democrat and Republican primaries, particularly the ever-present circus surrounding Trump. I dismissed the ramblings and soundbites I heard on NPR or laughed when I caught a YouTubed snippet of John Oliver or Stephen Colbert ripping one of Trump’s non-sequiturs to shreds. I felt Trump’s words could not be real; they had to be made up by Hillary Clinton or one of her Super PACs. Yet the last few weeks, I became perturbed by the escalation of events and speeches I heard about. So one morning, I went to the Donald Trump’s official Twitter (@realDonaldTrump) to see for myself what was going on and to see if he really was at the root of the tales of megalomania and total disregard for facts and common decency. The barrage of hate and mockery and veiled racism and gender bias on his Twitter feed shocked me. I sped down the page, finding quips and taunts and proclamations and accusations, many of which seemed libelous.
For a moment, I doubted it was his account. A presidential nominee would not make such statements, even if he were a Republican. But the glaring blue check icon signified the verified account. The more I researched, the more it became evident his staffers and advisers had little control over his stream of vitriol. Then came the horrifying sight: Exclamation points speckled his Tweets, like gravel shot from a blunderbuss. I felt sick. I had something in common with this man and his odious commentary. I questioned myself and how I came off in my communications to my friends and family. Did they see the excess? The manic fury? Was every one of my statements a rapture? A claim never to be wrong?
I immediately stopped using the mark. Replies thundered back, checking if anything was wrong. In the past when I have slowed down my gratuitous usage, friends thought I was ill or depressed or wanted to be left alone. These momentary aberrations from my digital persona left my words naked, unloved. And here I was again with my cell phone, pondering the resolutions to my messages. The period was insufficient. It felt solemn. Leaving nothing at the end of a sentence felt like I had given up, and perhaps I had. It was strange to realize how much I relied on such a simple thing. As the days passed, I wanted to use the exclamation point again, and I struggled to craft my messages with my former aplomb. I wrote them out and included the mark, but then swiftly deleted it. In the end, not sending anything seemed the better course of action.
In this library in Boise, I can read what Strunk and White say about the exclamation point (which isn’t much) or flip through a history book explaining the origins of punctuation. I can tell Donald the exclamation point probably derives from the Latin io. I can educate him on appropriate usage and ask him to rethink his rhetoric. In this vein, I invite Donald to visit this library, or any library, to stop being so willfully ignorant and read a few books, to learn about the real—and imagined—lives of other people. Reclaim some of the humanity you were born with, and still exists inside.
Beyond jokes about your shock of uranium yellow hair and your puffy orange skin, you are still a person. I am. We all are. We are all language users, and should understand that punctuation adds nuance, as well as emphasis, and aids us in our quest to understand one another. I am putting aside the exclamation point for the time being. America needs less hyperbole and more empathy. For now, until November, the exclamation point is yours, Donald.
Treat it well.