In Wendell Berry’s essay, why I am not going to buy a computer (1987), he cites rather entertaining reasons why he opts not to own the newest piece of hardware that IBM or Macintosh produces. He prefers, when writing his work, to use the age-old combination of pen-paper-wife. Although his essay was very well written (he must have a very vigilant editor), I am unconvinced and remain quite attached to my computer. I am, however, a firm believer in freedom of speech and definitely, Berry is well within his right to put forth his ideas. No matter how far-fetched and reminiscent of ‘tree-hugging’ activities his opinions are, we all must respect, if not agree, with his. Be that as it may, in the following paragraphs, I wish to rebut Berry’s three main arguments. And I will do so with the aid of this beautiful piece of machinery and I find that my soul is not any more stained with each keystroke I make.
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Berry’s arguments for not owning a computer may be summarized as (1) he would hate that his work be dependent on strip-mined coal (2) owning a computer would threaten the place of his wife who held the position of his only assistant as she diligently typed and edited his work for years and (3) He does not want to delude himself by thinking that a computer, as opposed to pen and paper method, would make his writing any better.
Berry’s first argument is heavily rooted in the fact that computers use electricity and thus using one would turn him into a rapist of the environment. While this does show his admirable commitment to the plights of nature, this sweeping comment overlooks a few things. Everything that is man-made in this world is a product of environmental resources. The papers and pens, which he lovingly uses when articulating his ideas, are also by-products of ‘raping the environment.’ How then would he distinguish which was more of a rape? In the field of law, unlike murder, there is no such thing as frustrated rape. There are no gray areas between the attempt and the consummation of the act. If one were to apply his sweeping logic to every man-made product in the world, a nuclear weapon would just be as destructive as a toaster. And we all know that it isn’t an army of breakfast appliances that makes the United States so nervous about North Korea.
His second argument about how a computer would disrupt the working relationship between him and his best-oiled machine (Mrs. Berry) is just downright ridiculous. I speak not of the issues of female subservience that some of his readers took offense to. I speak of the fact that a marriage is something more than a piece of paper, and definitely should not be hinged on a piece of machinery. I do not doubt the fact that his wife is as supportive as she is depicted to be and probably revels at the fact that he remains rather dependent on her to ‘type’ and ‘edit’ his work. But how exactly would a computer disrupt that ‘working relationship’? Only the tools would change, not the dynamics. And if Berry is worried that his wife would somehow feel threatened and replaced by a chunk of fiber optics, plastic and metal then his marital state would be more of an immediate problem than ‘raping the environment.’
Lastly, he claims that owning a computer would not make his writing any better. And for the first time, I wholeheartedly agree with him. I doubt that it was the fact that Dan Brown owns a computer made the Da Vinci Code an international best-seller, although typing at a PC probably made him a hit a lot faster than if he opted to push pencil to paper. The inverse is also true of course. Writing with pen and paper, even if you did so with only romantic candlelight to illuminate your path, would not magically produce Shakespearean work. So if both methods are exploitations of the environment, have no bearing on social relationships and do not improve my writing skills, then I would rather do so with a computer. That way, my work reaches my audience faster even if it is painfully mediocre and incomparable to Dante’s.
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