WHY HEMINGWAY WOULD HAVE SHOT THE IPAD
Mike Elgan writes about technology. Given his credentials, he can speak at length about what a content creator can get from Apple. I am also a writer and while I hate Apple, I respect the enthusiasm Elgan holds for his gizmos. What I refuse to respect is the idea he’s pushing that the author Ernest Hemingway would have loved the iPad.
Elgan’s arguments supporting this claim are: mobility; the iPad’s inability to run various applications at once thereby limiting the number of distractions; and the fact that “The improved appearance of typefaces on the iPad’s Retina screen creates a subtle psychological effect conducive to clarity of mind.”
Let’s look at mobility. Ernest Hemingway used pencil and paper. Before there were laptops, Hemingway and many other writers of his time were already mobile. They wrote in cafes and parks, they wrote in the mountains and they wrote in the homes of friends. Thus, for them, mobility is not a problem that needs to be solved.
“I suspect that most anti-iPad writers are just stuck in their old way of doing things and present their inflexibility as wisdom,” Elgan writes “They’re focusing on the wrong set of problems.” Really? Let’s talk about charging.
Hemingway, who was already mobile, didn’t need to charge his pencils. Certainly many devices can go the better part of a day without needing a charge, but there is nothing more destructive to a writer’s focus than noticing you’re at 15 percent battery life with no outlet in sight.
Worrying about access to outlets impacts mobility. Sure, you can take one of those external batteries with you when you head out, but let me tell you, if you’re crossing the Great St. Bernard Pass into Italy on foot and — once you reach Aosta — jumping on whatever train you can afford to Schio, you’re not going to want that extra weight. An iPad and a Bluetooth keyboard and an external battery versus paper and some pencils — Hemingway stored everything he needed to write on the go in his coat pocket. Where would he put all this?
While we’re on the topic of charging, let’s talk a little bit about how frequently Hemingway traveled. He went everywhere. I do too — you know what the best part of technology in foreign countries is? Worrying about voltage and having the right type of plug! Nothing like getting to your hotel room in a far off land in the middle of the night and realizing there is no way in hell you’re going to meet a deadline without a way to plug in!
Oh, but Apple sells a world travel kit, Elgan might remind us. Right. Because that’s one more thing Hemingway would have loved to carry when he took off. Who cares about spontaneous travel? You have a magical, amazing device!
Yes. Have you ever written on your magical, amazing device while sitting out on the porch sipping your café au lait during a snowfall? I have. Or, rather, I have tried. I’ll tell you this much: a pencil doesn’t care how cold it gets. And how Hemingway loved the snow.
As for distractions, Elgan really likes that the iPad limits your ability to fool around on the device while you’re writing. This prevents losing focus, he tells us — in probably the best spin I’ve ever seen put on one of the shortcomings of a gadget. I’ll say this much — if you need your writing tools to help you focus on what you’re doing, you’ve made the wrong career choice.
Sure, Hemingway knew having his own space to write was most conducive to creating a good work and keeping his sanity. But this had as much to do with leaving the writing at the end of the day as it did with getting into it.
But if he preferred to write in his own space, why did Hemingway write in cafes? The answer, which is the primary reason why Hemingway would have asked Elgan to have a go at boxing with him and promptly knocked him on his ass is simple: poverty. Elgan himself mentions it in passing — “In his memoirs of life as a starving writer in 1920s Paris…” — but it seems it’s been too long for Elgan to remember what it’s like to be a young writer trying to make it. Or perhaps he was fortunate enough to skip over that part of it.
Hemingway’s case was more extreme than most. The same essay Elgan cites to support the claim Hemingway would have loved the iPad paints a stark picture of the young author’s life in Paris. In it, Hemingway talks about the small room he rented in order to work in peace, just far enough from the little hole-in-the-wall he shared with his first wife Hadley and, eventually, his baby boy. Hemingway writes:It was eight or six or eight flights up to the top floor and it was very cold and I knew how much it would cost for a bundle of small twigs, three wire-wrapped packets of short, half-pencil length pieces of split pine to catch fire from the twigs, and then the bundle of half-lengths of hard wood that I must buy to make a fire that could warm the room… I thought about how the chimney would be cold and might not draw and of the room possibly filling with smoke, and the fuel wasted, and the money gone with it, and I walked on in the rain… until I came to a good cafe that I knew on the Place St.-Michel.
An iPad costs around $400, a Bluetooth keyboard costs around $100. Elgan seems to think that a man who wrote frankly about what it means to starve to do what he loved would have thrown $500 into a device that is neither practical nor durable. Because that’s the heart of it — Hemingway had no qualms spending money to live, it’s true — a trip to Spain to watch the bull fights, a ski holiday in the mountains, a day gambling at the horse races. But to throw down $500 to “upgrade” to something built by a company that has turned electronics into status symbols that are more about the pretty, shiny and new than anything else?
Not only would Hemingway hate the iPad, he would hate what Apple has become in general, and likely blame it for what consumer electronics have turned into in recent decades. Read The Rich and the Pilot Fish for his take on how the status-driven ruin everything if you need that statement substantiated.
As for the statement that “The improved appearance of typefaces on the iPad’s Retina screen creates a subtle psychological effect conducive to clarity of mind,” I can only say that clarity of mind is an internal thing, not something we ought to depend on Apple or anyone else to bestow upon us.
The most informed part of the article is the closing statement, where Elgan says, “Look, I would never tell another writer how to write or what tools to use. But I would suggest a consideration for the primacy of mental state in that decision. Don’t tell me you need a supercomputer with a giant screen to write well. Shakespeare was written with a sharpened feather. What you need above all is whatever tool frees your brain to think. And to me, that tool is the iPad.”
Good for you, Mike. You found the tool that works well for your craft. Please leave Hemingway alone.
Image: Ernest Hemingway in East Africa, 1954, via PBS.