Although it was one of the most revolutionary machines of the 19th century, the typewriter has been much derided by the increasingly technologically-focussed cognoscenti of the early 21st century. Since the 1980s, we’ve had the expressions digital revolution and / or future and / or frontier, the paperless office, and telecommuter. Everything was going to be better, and it was all going to be done via computer, over the wires? Ever worked in a paperless office? Ever known one that was genuinely paperless? No, nor have I. But I think that I can fairly say that the fact that you are now reading these words on a computer screen somewhere is due in part to that workhorse machine of business and creativity alike, the typewriter.
It might seem to the casual observer that the typewriter has gone the way of the dodo, or the gramophone. Doesn’t everyone have a smartphone these days? Don’t we always see their little zombie faces lit up by that tell-tale blue glow, in cars, in restaurants, in cinemas, and just about everywhere? Perhaps. But look a little deeper. Typewriters (and gramophones, for that matter) are everywhere. And they still work.
Enter author Richard Polt. He needn’t be said to have an axe to grind, but as the creator and editor of The Classic Typewriter Page, he certainly has an interest declared. In The Typewriter Revolution: A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century, Polt sets out to make a “revolution” out of an invention aged 140-odd years (depending on where you date the first successful machines to, see Chapter 2). The results are mixed, but more than half of The Typewriter Revolution combines interesting history, great photographs, and useful tips. The parts of the book that I found less useful or enjoyable, even moderately irritating, such as those documenting all of the weird and wonderful things that people are doing with typewriters, we will come on to in a moment.
I’m not alone in liking typewriters, or having redeveloped my attachment to them in recent years. Polt documents a number of writers who still use them, and the models that they use. Granted, they are mostly of an older generation, but I find that as I age, I mind the association less and less. If you enjoy pretending to associate with “celebrities,” then there are even a few attached to the cult of typewriters, just as there are to almost any other fringe fad. And apart from documenting writers who type, Polt also goes in some detail into the basics of not only choosing a typewriter, but using one as well. This latter part will all be familiar ground to anyone who ever took a typing class in school, although I should proffer a word of warning: if you take up with a typewriter, be prepared to re-learn your touch-typing: even my 1960s-era Signature machine (a Montgomery Ward-branded model originally made by Brother) has a radically different keyboard layout, which will have you endlessly substituting the “@” for quotation marks, until you get the hang of things.
What is most useful in The Typewriter Revolution is the discussion of the very real problems of maintaining and using a typewriter, when in most parts of the United States, shops which will service these largely reliable machines have dwindled to very few in number. Helpfully, Polt’s Classic Typewriter Page (q.v.) provides a list of all the locations he has been able to find, with contact information. But if you want to do it yourself, Polt devotes a chapter to explaining it all, from the very basics (identifying parts of the machine, et cetera), to what, where, and how to find the tools, solvents, and other bits and bobs that you will need if you want to create your own typewriter repair studio.
I think that there are at least two camps of people who still use typewriters, much like there are still at least two camps who listen to music on vinyl LPs: showboaters and pragmatists. Both types are addressed in The Typewriter Revolution, although they are probably not natural inhabitants of the same ecosystem. Showboaters care for appearance, first and foremost; they want to turn heads in the coffee shop, the bar, the music hall, or whatever other space they infest. Showboaters type while carrying on conversations on their Bluetooth headset with their iPhone, or while listening to a battery-powered turntable (I wish I were making that up). Pragmatists, on the other hand, are concerned with results, and could give a toss if anyone else ever sees how they work. If they still listen to vinyl, it’s because it’s a cheaper way to find decent music and their eyes are getting a bit old, anyway, so the larger album art helps.
Speaking personally, and perhaps obviously, I count myself as a pragmatist. I’ve started using typewriters again because they are useful to me as a part of my writing process. I’ve found the visible evidence of productivity to be a spur to working, in a way that lines of text in a computer document simply doesn’t match. I have two: an electronic word processor that I’ve had since the late 1980s (ah, high school), and a fully-manual portable from the early 1960s that I was given shortly after I mentioned that I would like to try writing on one again: someone found it at a garage sale for three bucks (a new ribbon for it, on eBay, cost me another $22). But I’ve never travelled anywhere with a typewriter, nor do I intend to. I don’t even leave one out on my desk (because dust, silly).
It will be the showboats, however, that give the pragmatic workers a bad name. As desperate cries for attention go, there are very few times when “hey, look at me, I’m typing!” is going to be met with anything other than derision. But Polt covers these fringe types regardless, as if determined to mine any vein for supporting evidence to his claim that typewriters are still useful.
At the end of the day, the typewriter is a practical device for achieving a simple goal. It is also impractical, especially if you have hundreds, or even thousands, to spend on a computer, a printer, toner, electricity, internet connectivity, networking hardware, and all the rest of it. Typewriters are portable, but bulky. The furtherest I can imagine traveling with mine is the front porch, in all honesty. For the most part, the days are long gone where writers sought opinions from their peers and editors by making carbon copies and putting them into the post. The usefulness of the typewriter, for the greater part, has gone the way of letters, postcards, and being expected to graduate school able to form a grammatical, articulate sentence.
So a book like The Typewriter Revolution is in many ways about clinging on to a kind of nostalgia. Usually, I’d say this was a bad thing. But I’m trapped by nostalgia myself. I have memories of typewriters that I’ve known and lost; my grandfather’s old black manual upright (I don’t remember the model), my mother’s sleek electric Smith Corona. So, despite the half of the book that is lost on me, I’m going to say that I really enjoyed The Typewriter Revolution. I don’t expect it to have a really wide audience, although I’d be delighted to be proven wrong. But for those of us “of a certain age” (and what is Christmastide if not a time to dwell on one’s mortality?), it is a charming invitation to hearken back to a time when coffee was instant, telephones plugged into your house (or cost a dime outside of almost any public building), television had at most five channels, and computers filled entire rooms. The future was all shiny and Star Trek and mysteriously wonderful.
But the future was written on a typewriter.
Reviewed 16 December 2015.
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