This isn’t a popular song I’m playing, or one you’re likely to hear again. But it isn’t a dirge. Or a swan song. Obsolete and unashamed, we feel like farmers who got their crops in safely before the hard rains fell. As storm clouds gather, it’s a time to walk the fields of stubble with the old dog, the hearthdog, and see, as the Bible says, that it is good. Then comes a long winter musing by the fire—though spring remains a question mark. The past is a flickering daydream, the present is turning ugly, and the future belongs to no one, though the kind of heirs we might have chosen seem less and less likely to inherit. We haven’t said “goodbye,” we’ve just said “enough.”
If you’re looking at essays from a technical point of view, this one (available online) is all about structure, and has a lot to teach us. If you’re only interested in reading essays you agree with, whether you like or dislike this one might depend on whether you read it in a book, or on an iPad.
First, the structure. Crowther starts off with a wonderful riff on the crwth, a medieval Welsh musical instrument similar to a lyre. The crwth has been supplanted, since the 19th century, by pretty much everything else that’s out there: harps, fiddles, guitars, electronics.
Crowther, whose name indicates his roots reach back to an ancient crwth player – “Crwythist?” he muses, though I’d lean towards “crwthier” following the lead of “luthier” –transitions to his actual topic, while moving forward to the more recent past, by bringing in his own instrument of choice, another instrument that has been supplanted:
For twenty-five years I earned a living with an instrument now consigned to an oblivion even more complete than that of the crwth, because there will be no attempt to resurrect the typewriter. Yet this humble machine produced a comforting music of its own. Each year, inevitably and sadly, there are fewer of us who remember the companionable percussion of the Royal, the Olivetti, the Smith-Corona. The atonal but almost syncopated symphony of a big-city newsroom with its clicks and taps and ringing carriages, its tempo as varied as the speed and vigor of the fifty typists, was a sweet sound that will never be heard again on this planet, except in the fitful dreams of old reporters.
Maybe I should mention, my husband had a manual Olivetti. It was one of the things I continued to appreciate about him, long after I stopped appreciating anything else he had to offer.
Then and only then do we move in to the curmudgeonly rant, where Mr. Crowther bemoans his obsolescent state. He does so fairly, noting that many technological advances have been improvements, yet he zooms in on his own profession of journalism as a potential example of the down side: “It may be sheer coincidence that the rapid disappearance of the typewriter and the rapid decline of journalism seem to coincide.” I can see why Bill Henderson would’ve wanted to include this piece; his Pushcart introductions typically (though not this year) include a rant against all things online and lays the decline of civilization at the feet of the World Wide Web. Crowther follows a similar path, declaring privacy to be dead. How interesting that just a few days ago, Thomas Friedman declared “four words are becoming obsolete” and “privacy” was one of them.
He concludes positively with a “stiff upper lip” attitude towards the decline of civilization as he knows it:
When you’re out of date and committed to it, it frees you up some. I honestly doubt that I’ll live to regret it. The parade goes by, and it can be highly entertaining as long as you don’t have to march, to learn the cadence and keep up the pace. You pick a choice seat on the reviewing stand and watch, unencumbered by performance anxiety, status or public opinion. You don’t count anymore, as the marchers reckon it, and as Janis Joplin once sang in “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”
I find it ironic that someone nostalgic for the “good old days” quotes Janis (the song was, by the way, written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster, and was first recorded by Roger Miller of “King of the Road” fame, by the way; Janis merely cranked it up a level to make it iconic), who was considered the decline of civilization back in the 60s. As were her British contemporaries Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Elton John, all three of whom have been since knighted by that wacky ultraprogressive run amok in modernity abandoning all tradition and decorum, Queen Elizabeth II.
I find myself, after reading this essay, in somewhat the same position as when I read Wendell Berry’s “Nothing Living Lives Alone”: I don’t so much disagree as resent the implication that technological progress is to blame.
I am less than six months from my 60th birthday, so Mr. Crowther and I are more or less of the same generation, being only eight years apart in age. I understand the feeling that the world is zipping past at a speed which exceeds your willingness to keep up. I feel that way, frequently. I don’t understand the thrumming insistence that a cell phone is now a necessity; that the value of education must be measured in terms of future income potential; the impossibility of buying a shirt or a cup of coffee entirely produced by fairly-paid adults, or the research required into my dinner selection to understand the impact that salmon or hamburger or bread may have on the local and global economy and ecosystem, not to mention my own personal health; why I must continually upgrade everything from my light bulbs to my computer in order to simply do the same things I have been doing all along.
So I understand.
But technology isn’t all or nothing. I have a computer; I don’t have a cell phone, tablet, or other gadget. Yes, the day is coming when I’ll need to have a cell phone (I don’t quite understand why, since I’m rarely away from my home phone, but it seems as necessary and universal as indoor plumbing to the world at large). And my computer has greatly enhanced my life, both educationally and socially (by nature – a nature that is classified as a disorder – I am a hermit; electronic relationships have not replaced real-life relationships, but instead have made possible relationships that were not possible before). I have also learned about a wide array of disciplines – math, science, literature, history, art – that I was never able to fully appreciate, unguided, before. Yes, you can find books on Emily Dickinson or calculus; but which one, which one? And it often takes a master teacher to undo the tedium of the wrong one – or of ninth-grade English class, and a host of fellow students to muddle through what was incomprehensible on my own. Not to mention the nearly-instant availability of all sorts of research materials, from information on crwths to a recent comic on the implications of the current generation growing up to a 50-year-old Twilight Zone episode, “The Obsolete Man,” starring a highly sympathetic Burgess Meredith as a librarian who has been declared obsolete by a dystopian State.
Now, Mr. Crowther admits that technological advances can be good things, and that some things should’ve been obsolete long before they were. So he’s fair-minded. And he puts a terrific ending on his essay, completing the circle by returning to the crwth:
In common usage the word “obsolete” has become too pejorative. Many outdated things—Jim Crow, the Vatican, cigarettes, the two-party political system—wear out their welcome but fail to achieve extinction rapidly enough. Yet so much that’s obsolete deserved a better fate. We may be the last of our kind, but we flatter ourselves that we’ll be missed, perhaps even heeded more in the future than we were in the past. In my research I came across a lovely sentence in praise of the homely, ancient instrument that gave its name to my father’s family. With a minor lapse of modesty, I can pretend that the author is speaking of me: “For all of its (his) technical limitations, the crwth has great charm, and is much more than a historical curiosity.”
I didn’t feel as resentful of this essay as I did of Wendell Berry’s piece, although the general outlook was similar: the world’s gone to hell, even though some things are better. As then, I can’t really disagree with anything Crowther says; what’s different here is that somehow he’s encased his curmudgeonly rant in a charming envelope.
I have a fondness for old things, and, despite concern about a society that seems to change more quickly than is good for it, an appreciation for some of the benefits of modern technology. And now, I think I’ll go watch some videos on the history and art of the crwth.