Thinking about typewriters in the previous post recalled a question that occasionally crosses my mind: what would William Faulkner have done with a laptop computer?

Other than disable its grammar-check, I mean.

I know this is a digression, but there’s a link back to carbon. This question first popped into my head during a visit to Oxford, Mississippi – home to the famous writer. I was attending a conference in Nashville and had some time on my hands, so I drove across Tennessee and down to Oxford, stopping briefly at Shiloh National Battlefield, the site of a bloody slugfest between the North and the South during the Civil War. It was a glorious autumn day, full of shadows and soft air – making it impossible to imagine the horrors of war. A pond where hundreds of Union soldiers fell was the epitome of serenity (‘shiloh’ means ‘peaceful’ in Hebrew). I hurried on to Oxford.

It was a bit of a pilgrimage for me. My mother, a bibliophile, adored Faulkner and constantly urged me to give him a try. In college, I gave in and decided to read the entire Portable Faulkner at one shot. To my surprise, I made it nearly to the end of the collection, only putting it down out of sheer exhaustion. I never knew sentences could be so long! It helped that I have Southern roots. My father hailed from south Arkansas, and I knew I had slave-owning ancestors as well as a forbearer who served in the Confederate Army as a Colonel. Reading Faulkner opened a window on this legacy. Born in the East and raised in the West, I was a stranger to the South – which was another reason to rent a car and hit the road.

There was one more reason to make the pilgrimage. Faulkner was my cousin. While doing genealogical research, my aunt stumbled across a close connection between the Falkner clan (its proper spelling – changed by the author) and the Lacy clan, the maiden name of my grandmother. My aunt explained the link to me once, but I neglected to write it down, regrettably. I hoped a trip to Oxford would correct my oversight. It did. In a bookstore, I learned that my grandmother’s grandmother and Faulkner’s great-grandmother were sisters, the daughters of Levi Stokes Holcombe (the generational difference was a result of Faulkner’s ancestor having her baby at age 14, while our ancestor had hers at 33).

This news was definitely worth the long drive.

After completing my research, I headed over to the Faulkner family home, called Rowan Oak (named after a mythical tree). A National Historic Landmark, it’s a lovely place, covered in cool lawns and droopy trees. I paid the small entrance fee, commencing a leisurely meander through the two-story house, which Faulkner purchased in the 1930s and renovated himself, between bouts of alcoholism, writing, and travel. In one room, I was amused to read that Faulkner and his wife Estelle fought constantly over the air conditioning unit. She wanted it on, to stave off the oppressive heat, while he preferred it off, for reasons that I could not fathom. Apparently, Faulkner had his way.

In another room, Faulkner outlined the plot to his Pulitzer-prize winning novel A Fable on a wall with a pencil. In a hall, I read Faulkner’s observation that every author – to succeed – had to be “demon-driven” in their desire to write (which certainly resonated with me). In an upstairs bedroom, I imagined a demon-driven Faulkner recovering from one of his infamous whiskey-fueled binges. In his study, I observed his typewriter, sitting quietly, no longer possessed by its owner.

Which made me think of Faulkner’s laptop.

What would he have done with one? A great deal of Faulkner’s writing is notoriously difficult to read – did a typewriter, with its messy carbon ribbons and erasing difficulties, influence his writing style? Would a laptop, with its relatively easy-to-operate writing software, have changed Faulkner’s stories? One can almost imagine Faulkner, on a typewriter, pausing after rereading a particularly convoluted passage that he had just written and thinking “Damn, I need a drink.” With a laptop, in contrast, he may simply clicked the ‘overwrite’ button and tried again.  Who knows!

We think of writing as writing – as words on a page (or screen) only. But a machine was required to bring an author’s words into physical existence. This mechanical process must have an influence what gets written, no? I know from personal experience that words banged out on an old typewriter are different than ones written on an electronic keyboard. That’s because using a typewriter was such a pain. You really, really wanted the first draft to be the last draft, and wrote it that way (it never was, alas). It’s a different story with laptops, of course. They make it easy to start over completely with a project, cannibalizing paragraphs, cutting-and-pasting material from other files, and so forth. With a typewriter – well, I doubt that Faulkner would have missed his if he had been given a choice. Maybe it’s what drove him to drink!

Still, one wonders: would Faulkner have written more novels with a laptop, or less? Would they have been longer or shorter? Would he have blogged? Had a Facebook page? Wasted his precious time Tweeting? What would a tweet by Faulkner have looked like? “Estelle has turned the damn air conditioning again! I’m going outside for a walk.”

We are both liberated and imprisoned by our times and our technology. Sometimes progress is a good thing, but sometimes it is not, as contemplating Faulkner’s laptop suggests.

One thing that he never had to contemplate was the carbon footprint of his work. I doubt that a typewriter has much of a carbon footprint, but a laptop does, of course. Curious, I looked it up.

According to Dell, the total greenhouse gas emissions for my laptop, including its manufacture, transport, use and disposal, is comparable to drinking 240 liters of orange juice. Not much, in other words.

I did a comparable search for the footprint of a typewriter and came up empty. This made me wonder: what was carbon footprint of the Google searches I made to write this post? According to Google, a single search uses about 1 kJ of energy, resulting in the emission of about 0.2 g of carbon dioxide. In context, 100 searches on Google has about the same footprint as 1 hour of using a laptop, 1/2 hour of using a light bulb and producing 1.5 tablespoons of orange juice.

I wonder: what’s the carbon footprint of a glass of whiskey?

Faulkner’s typewriter at Rowan Oak: