“One learns best about an ocean by swimming in it,” said a neighbor to me when I was about seven or eight and writing a school report about the Atlantic. Of course, I had no idea then about what he meant, after all the library was chock full of books about the oceans. Why couldn’t one just read about them?

What this neighbor was inferring was the practice of immersion. As I toiled through my master’s thesis, as I wrenched together my dissertation, immersing myself fully in the lives of the people I studied allowed me to visit their past. One could read about the yesteryears: but until you study them, until one sits themselves in front of a bevy of primary materials and begins to read old letters, diaries, receipts and other handwritten accounts of everyday life, one cannot truly visit the past. A complete swim saved me from turning in something less than, something faulty, something not quite nuanced.

I was thinking about this because of distractions. Ah, 2017 – so unlike 1756. As I transcribed old letters (a painful process sometimes, I don’t recommend it) from centuries-old hand-scribbled notes to twenty-first-century keyboard entries courtesy of my digitized laptop, an occasional Facebook alert would notify me of someone’s birthday over 5,000 miles away. Or the Guardian Newspaper would pop in with a notification about police banging down doors in London’s East End. Distractions would jar me, pull me away from my first-class seat into someone’s life travails some 270 years ago.

It’s my fault! I could just simply turn off the automatic wifi – but then again, one needs the wifi to connect to the ordering system of the archives which is online. Point is, I found myself out of practice in the art of immersion, and right now I really need to swim in the ocean of primary materials. What’s wrong with me? Answer: there is simply too much technology about me and not enough guts.

Handwriting from the eighteenth century had guts. Behind their oft times indecipherable swirls and uncrossed “tees” was a real human being. But the real plus is knowing that no one, and I mean no one, wrote like this guy. While switching from letters written by Charles Townshend to Richard Glover, the contrast in writing styles was a lesson in humanity. And there I sat typing on a keyboard giving binary digitization to their analogue prose. Somehow it seemed all too … reductive.

quillTheir letters returned to my eyes the physicality of eighteenth-century writing as a process. When they wrote they needed a quill, an inkwell, stationary, lighting. It’s all there in the shape of their “d’s.” The ink would only last so long, it is, after all, just a quill. There would be a pause followed by that moment where it became necessary to refill, that dip back into the inkwell, then a tap or a blot to wipe away the excess, then the return to the stationary only to run out again a few words later. Repeat it for the length of their writing: give a pause, then a movement, then a dip, then a tap or a blot, then a return. Pause, move, dip, tap, return, scrawl, repeat. This process is wired in. There’s a certain biology to it. The brain comes to expect it, rely upon it, pull from past experiences of pause, move, dip, tap, return, scrawl, repeat. Interjections of thoughts along the way become mini epiphanies.

archiveSomewhere in that pause, move, dip, tap, return, scrawl, repeat the writer adds to the sentence already underway but only a quarter written. This is why eighteenth-century writing reads the way it does: long sentences, thrown in thoughts, ideas, and notions that rode piggy back on top of the process of pausing, moving, dipping, tapping, returning, scrawling, and repeating.

Our digitized world stands in stark contrast. I type on a keyboard, mostly. Sometimes I text, which is really just a thumb thing. How then are we “hardwired”? Does our binary entries of ones and zeroes alter the bionetwork of our brain’s physical structure? If so, to what ends? Are we less thoughtful in the twenty-first century than those in the eighteenth? This pause, move, dip, tap, return, scrawl, repeat process lasted until about the 1830s, when the fountain pen came into being. Have we humans been on a slow descent ever since?

You see, I am easily distracted.

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