This is the last of my Penguin Modern reads for a while– I’ve reached the end of my second batch and the third hasn’t arrived yet. But for now, here’s a review Wendell Berry’s nonfiction, titled Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer.
About the book: In a short (5-page) essay fittingly titled “Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer,” Berry explains why he chooses to write by hand in an increasingly technological era. 5 response letters are printed following this essay, to which Berry in turn responds briefly. This is followed by the second essay of the book, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in which Berry argues again, at greater length, why he stands by his original decision not to buy a computer despite the responses he has received opposing his stance.
“But a computer, I am told, offers a kind of help you can’t get from other humans; a computer will help you to write faster, easier, and more… Do I, then, want to write faster, easier, and more? No. My standards are not speed, ease, and quantity. I have already left behind too much evidence that, writing with a pencil, I have written too fast, too easily, and too much. I would like to be a better writer, and for that I need help from other humans, not a machine.”
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this particular volume is that the entire book, though made up of separate pieces written at different times, revolves around the same topic. Most of the other Penguin Moderns I’ve read that contain multiple works have felt rather arbitrarily grouped with nothing more in common than a loose similarity in tone or theme. But Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer examines all sides of the same argument, remaining consistent from the first page to the last.
On the other hand, my least favorite aspect is Berry’s skill (or lack thereof) at arguing a point. At times he will say “there is no evidence to support this person’s claim” and then on the next page will say “I know there is no evidence to support my claim but this is how I feel and that is argument enough,” and so on. (That’s a paraphrase.) And underneath his flimsy attacks and counterattacks, I found Berry’s writing (at least on this matter) rather petulant. Berry argues like one of those people on social media sites that leave wordy, antagonistic comments just slightly off point and then continue to engage with every other commenter on the post.
“I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.”
Though Why I Am Not Going to Buy A Computer is the most recent volume I’ve read from the Penguin Modern collection (written in 1987-89), it already feels a bit outdated. Some of Berry’s points are no longer applicable– for example, it is no longer true that to write in the woods, you must carry a pen and paper along– computers are more portable than they were in the late 80’s. They can do a lot more for the user than they once could. I found myself wondering throughout the book what Berry would say about buying a computer today.
But that is not to say that these essays are now irrelevant. Though his arguments may have stemmed from a different time and place, they do make the reader question his/her own motives in using a computer. In seeing that use as an active chocie rather than a mere habit. Berry asks the reader to consider the environmental effects of producing and consuming technology, as well as the effects on family, the workplace, the home, etc. Is technology doing more for you than you are for it?
“My wish is simply to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.”
I did wish that Berry had fleshed out his first essay more thoroughly to begin with, as the first essay did feel rather bare-bones and I think much of the negativity in response might have been avoided if Berry had taken more time to support and explain his reasons the first time around. But since that didn’t happen, I did enjoy seeing how the original essay evolved over time, how Berry came back to it and reacted to the response letters it received.
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book made me think, though I did not particularly like Berry’s writing style, disagreed with some of his points, and felt that other points no longer applied to the current situation. I’m glad I read this one, but it didn’t overly impress me. I have ordered 6 more Penguin Moderns and I will be reading them in upcoming months, but after reading 4 only mediocre volumes from the collection in June, I’m ready for a little break.
Have you read this book? What did you think?
The Literary Elephant