Tag Archives: Barack Obama

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Writing or Typing? It Seems to Matter

Edited notes of Walt Whitman– Library of Congress

Would Shakespeare’s prose scan differently if he had used Word?

In the Preface of his recent 700-page presidential biography Barack Obama observed that writing only works for him if he lays out what he wants to say in longhand. With his natural fluency he notes that “a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness.” This is certainly a minority view these days, but this observation should give the rest of us some pause. He may be correct. Those of us who insistently invent our rhetoric at the keyboard should wonder if we have turned ourselves into typesetters first, and conveyors of significant meaning only when we can see past the instant formalism of text in pixels. Compositing in the frame of a word processor is its own satisfying act, but perhaps lets us drift away from the hard work of creating ideas worthy of the attention of others. Would Shakespeare’s prose sound differently if he had the use of Word? And what about Walt Whitman? His crossed-out scribbles seen in early drafts suggest he would have loved the ability to instantly copy, erase and edit.

And then there is the problem that some of us have that we cannot always read what we wrote. We need the help of a word processing program. The President probably did not have to transcribe his words into print. Others surely helped, and probably nudged a few errant nouns or verbs to their rightful places. But his point still stands.


We may not internalize ideas as well if we are typing them out.

One reason the choice of composition in longhand or at the keyboard is interesting is because we have some evidence that students are better notetakers if they are not using their laptops. Indeed, more university professors ban them from their classes, partly because of convincing research done at the Air Force Academy and elsewhere. These early studies suggest that we don’t internalize ideas quite as well when we are keying them in to a digital device.  The effects that play out here are a bit more subtle and complex, but we are generally more engaged when we must put thoughts down on the surface of a page.

I suspect that when we write in longhand, we look to our minds to reword what we have heard. That moment may be key. It means we have engaged with a topic differently than if we drift into a mode that is akin to taking dictation. An idea has gotten its hooks into us anytime we try to reword or simplify it.

Remember typewriters? I’m duty-bound to report that my best class in junior high school was–of all things–typing. My fingers could fly over an old Olivetti with few errors. But copying from the typing manual let my mind drift elsewhere. I had no idea what I was “writing.” Forty-five words a minute was not a problem, but this was a kind of dexterity more more akin to modern game-playing than engaging with ideas.

Now, as I wrap up a book, I have a disquieting reminder from the 44th President that I might have sometimes used my brain more than my mind.

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Well Said.

                                   Cory Booker

Sometimes a person comes up with the right words at just the right time: the result of good timing, a sense of irony, and an apparent simplicity that may yield a deeper truth.

Responses to others can be kind or cutting, playful or hurtful.  They are at their worst when one of the parties can hide behind anonymity.  One effect is that our political climate has become coarser and more toxic. It doesn’t help that our President seems to have no sense of humor.

Here are just a few favorites of the whittier kind heard from politicians, past and present, residing on both sides of the Atlantic.

  • Presidential candidate Cory Booker is frequently asked about race as a factor in the current political climate.  One recent response: “I’ve had lots of crazy things said to me, like, ‘Is America ready for another black president?’ And I’m confident it’s never been asked of a white candidate, ‘Is America ready for another white president?’”

  • [Nancy Astor and Winston Churchill had a notoriously rocky relationship in and out of the British House of Commons.  Both were sharp witted and ready for a quick retort.] Churchill once asked her for some advice on how to proceed in the House of Commons.  She responded with a simple “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?” In another exchange that supposedly took place at a party, Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

  • [In a recent exchange in Parliament the loquacious MP Anna Soubry dressed down government minister Michael Gove over his support of Brexit.  She ended her statement with a pointed question, to which Gove responded,] “The right Honorable lady is a distinguished criminal barrister. Now I know what it is like to be cross-examined by her.  But I also understand why Lawyers are paid by the hour.”

  • [President Obama loved to work with writers to come up with quips for the Annual White House Correspondents Dinner.  He seemed to enjoy sparring with journalists, perhaps because he was a successful writer before assuming the Presidency.  He also relished quips playing off of absurd Republican assertions about his personal history.]  A favorite: ”These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be.”

  • And there’s also this: ”The fact is I really do respect the press. I recognize that the press and I have different jobs to do. My job is to be President; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.”

  • John Kennedy won the presidential election in 1960 by a close margin.  Charges during the campaign that his wealthy father was rigging the result led to this observation by Kennedy, delivered in his usual understated style: “I just received the following wire from my generous Daddy: ‘Dear Jack, Don’t buy a single vote more than is necessary. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.'”