These thirty-six miseries of reading and writing in 1806, penned by the pseudonymous Mssrs. Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive, are (like most anything written two hundred years ago) a mix of the familiar and the archaic. The first will, I expect, be true as long as there are writers and readers:
1. Reading over a passage in an author, for the hundredth time, without coming an inch nearer to the meaning of it at the last reading than at the first; — then passing over it in despair, but without being able to enjoy the rest of the book from the painful consciousness of your own real or supposed stupidity.
But many of the complaints remind me that writing, especially, used to be a complexly physical affair, one that required the writer to engage with physical objects and his own surroundings in a way that made him subject to their own natures and demands, and not merely to his own — and slowed him down as a result. Here are just a few of the indignities I did not have to suffer in writing this blog post:
24. Emptying the ink glass (by mistake for the sand glass) on a paper which you have just written out fairly — and then widening the mischief, by applying restive blotting paper….
27. In sealing a letter – the wax in so very melting a mood, as frequently to leave a burning kiss on your hand, instead of the paper: — next, when you have applied the seal, and all, at last, seems well over — said wax voluntarily “rendering up its trust,” the moment after it has undertaken it….
33. Writing, on the coldest day in the year, in the coldest room in the house, by a fire which has sworn not to burn; and so, perpetually dropping your full pen upon your paper, out of the five icicles with which you vainly endeavour to hold it….
At first these complaints inspire amusement, maybe, and some combination of gratitude and feelings of superiority that we have better means of writing today. We have Open Office, and WordPress, and at a minimum the very nice fountain pen with which I initially drafted the main ideas of this essay. But being someone who writes both ways, by hand with a fountain pen and with various “text editors” on a computer, I wonder to what extent our means really are better. They’re more convenient, certainly, but do convenient means necessarily produce better ends, or even ultimately save time? And, specifically, how does the physical process of writing (or relative lack thereof) change not only the way we write but what the reader sees?