Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Time-Honored Concern

In a 1916 article from the magazine America, there is a summary of an argument made by Mr. Thomas L. Masson in a paper he wrote for another magazine called Bookman. His idea is that if Milton used a typewriter to write "Lycidas" or "Hymn on the Nativity", these poems would not be as good. Pen and paper, apparently, are the only way for an author to slow down and revise. It's fine to use the typewriter to "conform more closely to our modern standards of orthography" but the use of one for composition is met with the invective, "Perish the thought!"

The author of the column also concludes that the current dearth of quality literature in America is due to the number of authors who use a typewriter for composition. (Start reading from "That fatal...")

The entire idea of this blog is that the typewriter is an excellent way to compose writing. I (and others) actually believe that it is the superior way to compose writing. The computer marks a "crisis in the history of letters." With the speed of creativity no one takes time to slow down and work on writing. Revision is passe'. The typewriter offers a way for an author to select words carefully without the harsh distraction of the modern computer. Well, reading this column I can see that the concern over the typewriter edging out the traditional way of writing was a concern to early twentieth-century litterati.

The goal of my Classroom Typewriter Project has been to show that the physical act of writing on a typewriter allows a writer to focus. And through that focus become a better writer. In the teens there was a similar concern:

Is it natural that every iteration of technology causes people to worry about losing some ineffable quality of an older method? Did writing strike fear in the heart of the Chavet-Pond-d'Arch painter? Did movable type strike fear in the heart of the Lindsfarne monks?

If you want to read the entire on, Macduff!


  1. Different things work for different people - always have. Vilifying the tech, whatever era, misses why and what people write. I'd guess in the CTP that the tech of the typewriter gets in the way of more directly written communication "just enough" to make it interesting - but not so much it gets too distracting. People expressing themselves and being understood can't be governed by a dogmatic approach to hardware. Writing is just sharing what's in your head without saying it out loud.

    ...and I know if you got literacy results from cutting letters into stone or spray-painting on walls, you'd probably try that too :-)

  2. Ironic, isn't it!

    Rob puts things well.

    There were, by the way, traditional scribes who objected to the introduction of the printing press: e.g. Thrithemius.

  3. OK, let's see if I can confound Richard and put something else not quite as well:

    In case you haven't seen it, there are some echoes of the subject of your post in Joe Van Cleeve's here:

    It covers different ground but you can see his train of thought from yours. It's a little over my head - but he's put a lot of work into it and I sort of get his drift.

    The crux seems to be that meaning can suffer when the subject is articulated through a conspicuous method. A moot point if one's subject IS the method, but if you are writing (or making any other communication for that matter) the intention is generally that an audience can find some resonance with the work and be illuminated by it. So, stealthy writing from now on...

  4. As noted elsewhere, I've been reading Nicholas Carr's book, "The Shallows." The author doesn't really promote typewriters over computers, but his indictments of the internet lean that direction. There is a strong support of words printed on paper instead of displayed on a screen.

    Apparrently, Socrates was concerned that the act of writing things down would cause people to stop carrying all their knowledge in their head. So, you see, even the use of pen and ink gets in the way of truly free composition...