David Bouchier 11/25/13
12:21 pm
Mon November 25, 2013

Fond Memories of an Obsolete Writing Machine

There is a charming piece of music by Leroy Anderson called “The Typewriter” that requires a manual typewriter to be played onstage as part of the orchestra. When it was composed in 1950 this was no problem – typewriters were everywhere. When it was scheduled to be performed at the Staller Center at Stony Brook this month there was a problem. Where do you find a functioning typewriter these days?

One answer would be: in my basement, where I have at least five fully-functioning manual typewriters, that provide a reassuring link with the past.

For writers and journalists of a certain age, the most nostalgic sound in the world is the irregular clatter of an old manual typewriter, punctuated by the ping of the bell and the zip of the carriage return, being used by somebody who can't type.  I never learned to type properly myself. As a very young journalist, I found that good typing was not admired - it was not, as we would now say, cool.  Journalists were not supposed to be stenographers, we just got it down with two flying index fingers helped by the occasional thumb on the space bar and adventurous stabs with the other digits. On a good day, before the pubs opened, I could manage sixty words a minute. Not all those words were in the Oxford English dictionary, of course.

The reign of the manual typewriter was quite short. The first crude machines appeared in offices in the 1870s, and the first electric typewriters in 1935. By the 1980s, typewriters were history.  For my generation, though, the clack of a typewriter was and is the very music of romance. In movies or radio dramas, the appearance of a brilliant writer or a heroic journalist was always signaled by this very sound.

Considered simply as a writing machine, the manual typewriter has many advantages over the computer. It allows us to pause and think, for hours if necessary, in absolute silence, without beeping at us or flashing up a screen saver as a guilty reminder of idleness. A manual typewriter, like a good friend, knows the value of silence. It slows us down and, in those long pauses, grammar and spelling, structure and style can be considered. They must be considered, because it's so tedious to fix mistakes. When we are ready to start work again there's a palpable sense of drama and action. We can hear the writing getting done, painfully, letter by letter.

The quality of the writing is a matter of dispute.  Most of the great literature of the world emerged quietly from under a scratching pen. When the typewriter appeared, some writers condemned it as a barbaric device that would usher in the end of civilization, and certainly the end of literature. Truman Capote said, of Jack Kerouac’s work: “That’s not writng, it’s typing,” which I always thought was rather a compliment. Those of us who grew up with typewriters never understood the romance of the fountain pen, let alone the quill.

Unfortunately I missed the performance of Leroy Anderson’s "The Typewriter" because I was far out of town. Otherwise I could have loaned one of my favorite antiques to the orchestra, and perhaps even played it on stage.  Who could fail to love a machine that that made writing audible, legible, and fun, and could be used as an orchestral instrument into the bargain? They just don’t make machines like that any more.

Copyright: David Bouchier

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