Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Heavyweight Champion of Typewriters

For the past month or so, I've had the photograph above as my desktop wallpaper on my computer. And though I originally did it just because I thought it looked cool (I'm ashamed to say that I do a lot of things in my life for that very reason), it started to get under my skin. Perhaps it's just that I've been re-watching the first season of AMC's "Mad Men" (and appreciating its Art Direction and magnificent propping), but I have lately become nostalgic for the IBM Selectric.

There's no rational reason for this, I know. I love my computer. I really love it. It's probably the only thing that has allowed me to write novels. If I had to stand at a desk and write in longhand like Hemingway (why he stood, I have no idea), all I'd have to show for it would be three short-short stories and phlebitis. Even if I had to write on a typewriter these days, I'd most likely be composing haiku, lazy bastard that I am. (Case in point, right now: I'm blogging when I should be writing.)

The fact is, I'm old enough to have taught myself how to type on a giant 40 pound cast iron Royal typewriter leftover from the 1950's that I inherited from my very first job (The shipping department of Home Planners, located on Grand River Avenue in Detroit). I was unemployed after college, with a lot of free time and just starting to write, so it was time to finally learn how to type. And I had me the Packard of typewriters -- finned and out-sized, unpadded and lethal in a collision.

I didn't actually get to use an IBM Selectric until my first "real" job in advertising a few years later. This was in the 1980's when everyone was snorting cocaine and wearing keyboard ties. I remember being so thrilled seeing the Selectric when I was shown to my desk for the first time. Even though it was dangerously close to obsolete even then, mere moments before the dawn of the computer, it felt like the most modern machine I could ever use. I recall the humming noise it used to make, as well as the vibration you felt as you typed or even when you just rested your fingers on ASDF and JKL:, waiting for inspiration to strike.

It too was a heavy beast of a machine. Which makes me wonder: is there something about composing on a weighty contraption that feeds the illusion that one's work is weighty as well? What does it mean that now that writing machines are feather-light, everyone is writing -- blogs, status updates, tweets, texts (and most of it feather-light as well). Were people less likely to write when they had to operate heavy machinery to do it? ("Stay away from that thing unless you know what you're doing!") Maybe. But if that was the case, everyone would have been writing their asses off when the quill was in fashion. Then again, maybe they were. I can't remember. I'm not that old.

Still, I can't help but to long a bit for that rumbling, quivering behemoth of a typewriter with its ball of keys and the thunk it made when you closed the top, like slamming the door on a Deuce and a Quarter. Of course, here in the muzzy glow of nostalgia, I am conveniently forgetting what a pain in the ass typewriters were, specifically my aversion to typewriter ribbons. I hated those things. (Cut to me at a desk, ink on my face and hands, spewing expletives). I will happy live out my days never again soiling my fingers with accursed typewriter ink. So screw the Selectric. Huzzah technology! I still love my computer.

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