On Typewriters

Computers are everything-machines. Of course they can be typewriters. But for better or worse, they also do everything else: they’re books, they’re movies, they’re newspapers, they’re TV, they can be a town hall, they can be and often are dictators or the proxies of dictators. We’ve summoned these little, vicious machines inside our magic circle — and as is usually the case in summonings, we’ve accidentally broken that circle. Computers now seek the compensation of a contract, a price will be paid, one way or another, the sand that we’ve drawn around ourselves for protection in some atavistic ritual has predictably been brushed aside.

I collect and repair typewriters. The typewriters I’m interested in, manual typewriters, were designed to write words. Your own words perhaps. On paper. They are machines that require no electricity — they require the food of paper and your interest, but they fundamentally make few other demands. Of course you could just use a pen or pencil, you don’t need a machine at all. If you subscribe to absolute Luddism then they’re similar to the overlord everything-machines, symbols of bureaucratic slavery. But then you could say the same thing about paper or the pen itself — let us reject paper entirely and retreat to the clay tablet, let us reject the tablet and paint on the cave walls. And so on.

Why a resurgence of interest in typewriters? Part of it is old fashioned collecting instinct, that weird little pebble somewhere in the jelly of the human brain that needs to amass types of things together, a form of irrational ownership. Typewriters are important artifacts of the first modern age, now irrevocably gone. For this, they’re worthy of interest and preservation, but I also believe they’re still useful for creative writers. They’re a deterrent to the invasion by the everything-machines on fertile territory.

The machine itself, the design of the machine, as we know of it from the pinnacle of examples in the middle of the 20th century, is the epitome of a perfect tool. They are not everything-machines. They are examples of sparseness and limitation. They are made of small bits of metal, springs, hammers with blocks in the form of letters. The mechanisms of the really good manual typewriters, well kept, will last longer than you. Cormac McCarthy’s Lettera 32 was bought in 1963 and lasted his entire career. They are repairable and maintainable. Many are portable — the Groma Kolibri for instance, which is about eight pounds, and stunningly thin. Similarly portable, the typewriter associated with William Burroughs, the Antares Parva. Others are monsters, like the Underwood business machines, tanks lumbering onto desktops to output endless invoices and memos.

We tend to remember what we want, the routine of the daily typewriter was hardly glorious novel-writing. But typewriters influenced the tone of 20th century writing, the patter, the click-clack. As Truman Capote lamented about Kerouac “That’s Not Writing; That’s Just Typing”, the typewriter facilitated modernism and experimentation, it altered writing. It’s one level of abstraction away from pen on paper. Writing on a computer is several levels isolated beyond that. Comparatively, writing consistently, voluminously on a typewriter is a physical action. It is a particularly aggressive action — you are hitting the paper with hammers, pressing ink into paper. It is unforgiving. If you want perfection you will need additional tools like whiteout.

But if you’re writing creatively you’ll be, more often than not, ready to strike or annotate with the pencil from behind your ear, or you’ll take drafts and cut them up with scissors, gluing the passages back together into the desired order. It’s radically different than writing on a computer. The effort needed to do this leads to an economy of words — although not without parentheticals, since text isn’t as instantly malleable as it is on a computer. On a typewriter you adjust as you go forward, without the ability to redraft in place like on a computer. You always move forward, you leave the rewriting to another draft. The series of compromises is different, the physicality is different, the resulting text, naturally, is different. I’d argue better because the act of putting words together feels closer, the mistakes are human, the text is tangible.