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September 23, 2008

OGIC: Type me up, type me down

Typewriters knew things. Long before the word-processor actually stored information, many writers felt that their Remingtons, or Smith-Coronas, or Adlers contained the sum of their knowledge of eastern Europe, or the plot of their novel. A typewriter was a friend and collaborator whose sickness was catastrophe.

It's surprising to recall that in college, in the late 1980s, I still owned a typewriter, along with my standard-issue Mac Classic. I must have lugged it with me from dorm room to dorm room each year--and to and from different apartments each summer--but I can only remember using it in one context, a poetry writing course my junior year. Typing my poems made me feel more like part of an ongoing tradition (itself relatively recent, of course), and it called for a precision and a decisiveness in the act of composition that were bracing. It pleased my senses, and bolstered my sense of making something real and substantial, to see and hear the keys strike the page with a physical, really a violent impact. My longest poem ran only a page and a half, so I wasn't exactly suffering for my art. Anything longer I wrote on the Mac, but it felt like a more evanescent affair.

Maybe I hang out with too many writer types, but it seems to me the memory of typewriters sends lots of us into giddy, almost moon-eyed reverie. This lovely obituary of typewriter whisperer Martin Tytell, in the Economist, is no exception. I love how it finds room amidst the extraordinary facts of Mr. Tytell's life to wear its heart on its sleeve about the magnificent machine:

Anyone who had dealings with manual typewriters--the past tense, sadly, is necessary--knew that they were not mere machines. Eased heavily from the box, they would sit on the desk with an air of expectancy, like a concert grand once the lid is raised. On older models the keys, metal-rimmed with white inlay, invited the user to play forceful concertos on them, while the silvery type-bars rose and fell chittering and whispering from their beds. Such sounds once filled the offices of the world, and Martin Tytell's life.

Everything about a manual was sensual and tactile, from the careful placing of paper round the platen (which might be plump and soft or hard and dry, and was, Mr Tytell said, a typewriter's heart) to the clicking whirr of the winding knob, the slight high conferred by a new, wet, Mylar ribbon and the feeding of it, with inkier and inkier fingers, through the twin black guides by the spool. Typewriters asked for effort and energy. They repaid it, on a good day, with the triumphant repeated ping! of the carriage return and the blithe sweep of the lever that inched the paper upwards.

Posted September 23, 2008 1:00 AM

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