[NOTE: I’m trying to make this blog an Obama-free zone for at least one more day. One day at a time, they say.]
This Atlantic article by Nicholas Carr is a recommended read, about the reported loss of concentration and patience for absorbing longer works that he believes comes from too much internet Googling.
Don’t skim it, now; read the whole thing!
I’m not so sure we suffer from the phenomenon that Carr describes so much as that we lack the time to read in a leisurely fashion, in part because there now are too many competing entertainments and methods of gathering information.
But I was especially intrigued by an anecdote from the article about how the medium by which a person writes, rather than reads, can change an author’s style. Carr relates how Nietzsche’s work underwent a transformation as a result of the typewriter:
Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time….One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”
You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”
I’m with Nietzsche on that one. Before the word processor and then the computer, I used to compose all my papers in longhand and correct them the same way, with many crossouts and additions. Once I was satisfied (or a few hours before the paper was due, whichever came first) I’d type it on my Smith-Corona, using whiteout or erasable typing paper to correct the inevitable typos. It felt like a laborious process, and it often was; I’m not the greatest typist, and Spellcheck was hardly a gleam in anyone’s eye.
So when the instantly correctable word processor and then the computer became readily available, it seemed almost miraculous. How wonderful to watch the lines jump into place when a word was removed, magically and seamlessly closing the gap.
But I noticed that my writing was changing in some subtle fashion. It was difficult to be as imaginative as before; the thoughts seemed more stilted, although the words themselves flowed onto the page far more efficiently.
But I found to my dismay that I simply could not write poetry that way, although I could edit my poems. I had to write poetry longhand. Not that much of a hardship, really, since poems tend to be relatively short.
It seemed that there was an actual physical difference in the way the hand accessed the brain and the creative juices depending on whether that hand was writing or typing. Why this should be so I do not know, but it has persisted. To this day, I write poetry only by hand, although humorous verse (like my song parodies on this blog) can easily be accomplished on the computer.
I’m not alone in my assertion that writing by hand is a very different animal than typing, and a much more emotional animal at that. Here are some of the thoughts of others on the matter, very similar to my own experience (the passage is from Daniel Chandler’s “The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand”):
Many writers have alluded to the importance of handwriting in their thinking and writing….Fay Weldon declared: ‘I choose to believe that there is some kind of mystic connection between the brain and the actual act of writing in longhand’ (Hammond, 1984). And Graham Greene commented that ‘Some authors type their works, but I cannot do that. Writing is tied up with the hand, almost with a special nerve’ (Hammond, 1984). The anthropologist Jack Goody (1987) wrote that ‘Nothing surpasses pen and paper as being “good to think with”‘. And Rebecca West reported that she used a pencil ‘When anything important has to be written… I think your hand concentrates for you.’…John Barth favours the fountain pen, commenting that: ‘there’s something about the muscular movement of putting down script on the paper that gets [the] imagination back in the track where it was’ (Plimpton, 1987).
And they say it so much better than I have. But that’s because I’m not writing this by hand.