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Typewriter Tributes


The Root of the Attraction

by

Richard Polt

It's the twenty-first century, for crying out loud. With every passing year, it seems more and more absurd to use a contraption based on nineteenth-century technology: a manual typewriter, a conglomeration of levers and springs and gears that doesn't produce editable text, can't do any fancy formatting, and is offline forever, hopelessly isolated from the rest of the world. Justify yourselves, you typewriter-loving Luddites!

1. The Practical Paradox

Could it be that the manual typewriter's limitations are precisely its advantages? I'll make the case, as others have, that sometimes less is more.

When you're writing, do you want to be faced with a thousand options and sub-options dreamed up by programmers--or do you just want to get down to business? The typewriter does not distract you from the task at hand.

Do you want to be tempted by the infinite sea of the Internet, constantly beckoning you to check your e-mail and your favorite sites? Not if you value your writing time.

Yes, it's true that it's hard to correct mistakes--but that's an advantage, if you have any tendency to over-edit. Pump out a first draft on a typewriter, don't look back, go full steam ahead. The machine will make you steely and resolute. Save your editing for a digital second draft.

And it's true that you can't immediately put your typewritten text on a web site (though some "typecasters" scan their typing and upload it to their blogs). Isn't it healthy, though, to write something just for yourself, for a change -- to eliminate the constant virtual reader over your shoulder, and produce something genuinely private?

But now I have to make a confession: I composed this essay on a computer. In fact, I use a Mac for some 80% of my writing (e-mail, academic work, newsletters). Maybe 15% is done by hand (class and meeting notes, journal entries--I favor a vanishing-point fountain pen, blue-black ink, and bound blank books). Only about 5% is produced on a typewriter. I type envelopes, labels, forms, comments on students' papers, and the occasional first draft of some difficult piece of writing. But all these could have been done by computer or by hand, and any psychological obstacles to working on a computer can be overcome with some mental discipline. No, the practical paradox can't be the whole story.

2. The Fetish Factor

It's not true that typewriters focus you purely on your written work. There's plenty that intervenes: the staccato click of the typebars, the music of the bell at the end of the line, the whizz of the returning carriage, the cool smoothness of the nickeled levers, the resistance of the keys, the glitter and shine of the finish. Typewriters offer a rich sensory experience, and as time passes, they also take on an ever more conspicuous historical presence as remnants of a vanished world.

That's what we love, and we can't cover up the subjectivity of the love with objective arguments about efficiency and effectiveness. We just happen to like the feel, the look, the sound, the ambience. We like the thought of great twentieth-century novelists pounding away on their Underwoods (even though most typewriters were used by secretaries to type dull business letters previously dictated by some boss). We like the romance of the war correspondent or sportswriter with his Corona constantly at his side, or the excitement of an old newsroom with its cacophony of writing machines.

Our love for the typewriter as an object fetishizes a machine for writing, a machine that in its heyday was taken by most users simply as a means to an end. We value the tool as if it were an end in itself, as if it were a work of art. And could it be even more than that?

3. The Sentimental Story

Yes: it's not just aesthetics. After a while, you come to love your typewriter more personally. As Paul Auster has written of (and on) his Olympia SM 9: "Like it or not, I realized we had the same past. As time went on, I came to understand we had the same future."

Auster got his Olympia secondhand, which is how I got my Remington Noiseless Portable Model Seven--at a garage sale, when it was already some forty years old. Now it's seventy, and I'm in my forties myself. Three decades after my father bought me this machine, after writing essays on it in high school and college and graduate school, I can still take it down from the shelf and compose on it, and I still do. It still seduces me with its Deco lines, still has the same quirks (that little "m" missing a foot), still has the same weight and feel. If I could save only one of my nearly two hundred typewriters, this would be the one.

How many things do you still own from your childhood? How many of them are still usable and useful today? How many of them preceded you in the world and may outlast you? Precious few, I'll bet--and I'm certain that none of them is a computer. Computers are designed to be unusable and obsolete within a few years, as they are caught up in ever-accelerating, interdependent product cycles. Most manual typewriters, though they cost the equivalent of a personal computer in their day, were built with a completely different design philosophy: make a product so durable and excellent that the user will be happy to invest in it. It's often the case that despite decades of abuse and neglect, a typewriter can be brought back into good typing form with an afternoon's cleaning and adjustment. They endure.

Your typewriter is your friend. It may not be the ideal tool for a job, its looks may be more scruffy than flashy, but it will serve you loyally until you die. Look for a typewriter built with care, use it with pleasure and pride, and keep it with you. You'll be glad you did.


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