Penguin Modern Classics: “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” by Wendell Berry

Although I had seen photos of the Penguin Modern Classics all over bookstagram (have you seen them? They’re gorgeous!), I first heard about Wendell Berry’s “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” specifically when Ariel Bissett recommended it in a video about social media. The two essays contained in this volume (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” {1987} and his response to critics titled “Feminism, The Body, and The Machine” {2003}) discuss America’s obsession with technological advancement, particularly the use of computers to write rather than typewriters. Given our present day dependence on phones, social media, and the internet in general for many of our daily tasks and interactions, I decided to give this tiny book a try.

While I may not agree with all of Berry’s arguments, I found them absolutely fascinating to read about. In an age where technology is highly praised for the advantages it brings to society, it’s rare that you see people standing up against it with a more complex argument than “kids these days spend too much time on their phones,” or something to that effect. When asked why we shouldn’t be as dependent on technology today, many people will reply “because we lived for decades without it, and we survived.” However, Berry’s arguments are much more nuanced and thought-provoking than many contemporary ones, albeit problematic at times.

There are three main themes and arguments that remain prevalent throughout the essays:

+ Environmental concerns. Berry is a farmer, making it no surprise that one of his major talking points is the environment. How will nature continue to handle all of these rapid technological advancements that require more and more resources from the earth? Of course, his point here is sort of undermined by the fact that his wife often uses a typewriter to type up his work. How does he think that typewriter was created? I suppose his argument applies more to people who would continually throw out perfectly fine typewriters in order to purchase the latest computer, thereby wasting a fine machine.

+ The value (or lack thereof) of “progress.” Throughout the essays, Berry emphasizes his preference for writing by hand rather than typing. He asserts that while computers may allow you to write more, in no way does that mean what you’re writing is necessarily better. This gets to the crux of Berry’s main arguments: rather than strive for constant “progress” and “advancement” that merely increases efficiency, America should concentrate on improving what they are obsessively trying to make more efficient. If I had to choose one argument to agree with the most from Berry’s essays, I would say this one is the one that really resonates with me. At some point we’re going to have to face the fact that what we’re trying to improve is not actually being improved at all; rather, technology has been used to cover up what should have been changed all along.

+ Feminism. In a nutshell, Berry argues that women should not strive for the same industrial working lives as men because this work is not beneficial to men, either. Rather than condemn marriage as a trap for women, Berry lauds the household as a sphere with its own economy and dynamics wherein partners can help and work for each other out of mutual respect and love. This argument seems so convoluted to me and completely disregards the initial need for feminism in the first place. The problem is not that men are unhappy in work, and therefore women should not aspire to the same work–the issue is that women do not have the same opportunity to be unhappy with that work in the first place. Saying “us men have tried it, you wouldn’t like it, take our word for it” is basically saying “we don’t trust you enough to make your own judgments, so we’ve already decided for you.” Oh, Berry.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading these essays and wading through Berry’s fascinating arguments. This is the first Penguin Modern Classic I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be the last! They’re perfect for reading in one sitting when you want something different from what you normally read. I wouldn’t definitely check out some of Wendell Berry’s other writing in the future!

What are your thoughts on this book or the themes it discusses? Have you read any of the Penguin Modern Classics? Have any recommendations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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7 thoughts on “Penguin Modern Classics: “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” by Wendell Berry

  1. Interesting. I sort of get the email to write by hand, but I honestly think it’s much better for my own process to be able to write something, backspace it, and try again, rather than keep scribbling things out. It gets really hard to read what you have written then! Also, I type faster, which is nice when I have something in mind that I want to get down before I forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would say that typewriters are a nice idea, except that computers let you search your huge document and backspace text you don’t want. In my opinion, the computer actually does improve on the typewriter in tangible ways. If Berry wants to argue that we should figure out how to make the average laptop last more than five years, and thus save the environment, I’d be all for that–along with many consumers.

    I admit the feminism argument does seem convoluted. I don’t this most people would disagree that the home is important. That’s where people relax, chat with friends, raise their kids, and do their hobbies, after all. Again, I think that we should be focusing on something different than Berry seems to suggest. If men are unhappy at work, why is the solution for women to stay out of work? Why can’t we figure out how to make men (and women!) happy at work? I’m sure we could start by cutting the work week down to start. Half the people I see at work aren’t working, anyway. They’re on their phones, on Facebook, browsing shopping websites…. Why make them stay in their office all day?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree! The “feminist” arguments really frustrated me, particularly because they miss the entire point of feminism in my mind: to give women the opportunity to CHOOSE for themselves rather than have men decide for them. Why not let women decide for themselves that they hate working like men do?

      Like

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