"I like to see black words on white paper rolling up in front of my gaze."
June 5, 2008 11:04 PM   Subscribe

"I have never had an accident where I have pressed a button and accidentally sent seven chapters into cyberspace, never to be seen again. And have you ever tried to hack into my typewriter? It is very secure," says author Frederick Forsyth. In the computer age, people still love typewriters. BBC News Magazine examines why, with some interesting comments after the article. Via.
posted by amyms (79 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I bought a wonderful old typewriter on ebay for $10. The base is cast iron, I think, and it weighs a ton, but it's such a gloriously old machine. It took me weeks to figure out why there wasn't a key for 1 or ! ('1' is a lower-case 'L', and '!' can be made with a full stop then backspacing and typing an apostrophe over the top).

I use it for letters to friends overseas, and for typing up poems that I stick on my pinboard. There's something quite pleasing about having every key stroke emphasised with such a unique mechanical percussion. I wouldn't be game enough to write anything longer than a letter on it, but it's good fun in small doses.
posted by twirlypen at 11:26 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I learned to type on a manual typewriter; hence the faintness of my semicolons.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:30 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Damn, that would have been funnier if it hadn't stripped out the span class "smallcopy" wrapped around the semicolon.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:31 PM on June 5, 2008

I remember typewriters! Hell, used to use 'em quite a bit, actually...

I hear they unearthed one from the bowels of that recently discovered pyramid in Egypt. It belonged to King Menkauhor, and had a piece of papyrus still in the machine. The typed message read: "Fetch me my sacred bull, and send 50,000 slaves to Memphis to start work on that new design of mine, the geodesic dome." Shame ol' Menkauhor didn't live long enough to see it through...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 11:36 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I learned to type on a manual too, BrotherCaine. It's my only excuse when my family snarks at me for "being so LOUD" on my computer keyboard. In my mind, keys need to be hit with force and determination, dammit!
posted by amyms at 11:37 PM on June 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

When I worked IT, I had to send back a laptop four times because of a former manual typist with sledgehammer fingers.

Although typewriters don't eat seven chapters at a time, an author friend of my Aunt's lost her only copy of a typewritten manuscript for a novel in the Berkeley hills fire.

Still, I love the machines, and wish I still had one for filling out pre-printed forms and suchlike.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:41 PM on June 5, 2008

Yup, it's not easy to backup your typewritten pages.
posted by delmoi at 11:55 PM on June 5, 2008

Perhaps it's the luddite in me, but there is something quite pleasing about the older way of doing things. One of the commenters in the article mentions the smell of the ribbon and the (literally) sensational experience of using her typewriter. Although computers are far more efficient (when they work), they lose that specific, tactile please. I find it's similar with wine- many wineries are now changing to stelvin (screw cap) closures. They're cheaper and have far less risk of spoiling the wine, but there's just something solidly enjoyable about pulling a cork out of a bottle of wine.

Still, I suppose in a century or so people will be misty-eyed and nostalgic about what we consider modern today.
posted by twirlypen at 11:58 PM on June 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yup, it's not easy to backup your typewritten pages.

Well, that's what the trusty old Xerox machine is for.
posted by amyms at 12:00 AM on June 6, 2008

As a professional writer who started many years ago using a typewriter, I think word processing is absolutely the best thing since sliced bread. And I'm a bit of a Luddite. But seriously. When you're on your thirteenth draft of a play, let's talk about the difference between changing a word because you want to change a word and rewriting an entire page because you want to change a word. Or possibly several pages. Or retyping the whole damn thing, if the word is someone's name. Find, replace, done.
posted by kyrademon at 12:09 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been thinking about getting one again after all these years. The biggest reason? No internet.

A laptop for a writer is like a typewriter with a TV, stereo and library attached--and thousands upon thousands of channels, songs, articles to choose from: laptops anywhere near wifi are an endless procrastination device, an infernal tool of distraction for undisciplined souls such as myself. Indeed, I've even thought of disabling the internt on my laptop just so I won't be distracted.

Although a laptop's often purchased to be used chiefly as a word processor, one all too easily whiles away the hours on websites like this one--when one should be writing. A typewriter, on the other hand, offers no such distractions. It's just there, it has no cut/paste/erase, no itunes or internet, and one must face the bloody thing on its own terms. There are far fewer excuses with a typewriter. Far, far fewer.
posted by ornate insect at 12:10 AM on June 6, 2008 [14 favorites]

An odd keyboard.
posted by Tube at 12:27 AM on June 6, 2008

There is a typewriter somewhere in the house - it is probably pretty dusty.
As noted above, the typewriter offers no distractions such as the internet, but it does keep you busy retyping and trying to control the mess of carbon paper. Then there is the mixed blessing of Wite-Out...
I remember the green screen computer with yellow type, also the black screen. I clearly remember losing all the pricing in my catalog more than once. On a previous machine, I actually saw the "blue screen of death".
Now I don't write anything so serious and enjoy pasting little illustrations into stuff I write for a club. Hard to to do that on a Selectric.
posted by Cranberry at 12:33 AM on June 6, 2008

Ornate insect --

Meet the Neo: a simple, elegant solution.

I suspect this was discussed formerly on Metafilter, but I'm too scattered to look it up.
posted by jrochest at 12:53 AM on June 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

There is a typewriter somewhere in the house - it is probably pretty dusty.

I have an IBM Selectric (I think it's a II, but I'm not sure) somewhere in my attic. It's probably being guarded by scary spiders, like the rest of the forgotten stuff up there, but every once in awhile I'm tempted to go find it, so that I can clack-clack-clack to my heart's content.
posted by amyms at 12:53 AM on June 6, 2008

Well, that's what the trusty old Xerox machine is for.

You may want to check into the source of the phrase "carbon copy" as well...
posted by DreamerFi at 1:14 AM on June 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

I looked into getting a typewriter to save my eyes (and because I love metal, mechanical things), but I absolutely must have the ability to save documents to at least .rtf or to somehow transfer them to a computer to then save them. Unfortunately, electronic typewriters only made it as far as a diskette in an obscure format.

Unfortunately, the Neo is neither better for my eyes nor my penchant for things that click, clack, and whirr. I guess I could scan whatever I typed out on a typewriter, but OCR (that I've seen) isn't good enough yet to make the document editable without any fuss. Plus, I might be too lazy to get every version of every document scanned in.

In case you were going to suggest it, I am nowhere near hardcore enough to do something like this and this is way too sketchy.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 1:21 AM on June 6, 2008

I have never had to wait more than a fraction of a second to correct a typo, and when a typo is corrected, there are no white marks to reveal where it once stood.

I have never had to stop writing because my computer ran out of ribbon. Maybe I had to buy more ink to print it - but I never had to stop my train of thought.

I have never had to rewrite entire pages if I wanted to move the first paragraph to the end, or the end paragraph to the front.

I have never had to type the same thing more than once.

Finally, if a document exists, I've never had to wait more than a few seconds while the computer searches for me - instead of frantically rummaging through my desk for the one and only copy that I knew I placed there six months ago.
posted by BrianBoyko at 1:37 AM on June 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

The only way to hack into an old-school typewriter is to use a hacking tool. Like an axe or a machete. You can't use a sledgehammer though it'd probably be quicker because hacking involves cutting, and hammers don't cut, they bash. And you can't use a fine cutting tool either, it has to be heavy and crude. Like an axe. Because hacking implies heaviness and crudeness. That's probably why it's secure - it's hard to hack into something with an axe and not have someone notice.
posted by WalterMitty at 2:57 AM on June 6, 2008

Typewrites have their place, much like unicycles do.
posted by dawson at 3:03 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Typewriters? Newfangled gimmicks - I always said they'd never last. When I got my first job in the Civil Service, everything was written by hand, with a pen, unless it was external mail. And we were all the better for it, by jingo.

On the other hand, I well remember owning an Amstrad PCW 9512 back in the eighties (slogan - 'yesterday's technology today') back in the eighties, and finding with delight that one of its selling points was 'typewriter mode', where each letter was sent directly to the printer as you typed.
posted by Phanx at 3:26 AM on June 6, 2008

Anyone remember electronic typewriters? A bit more oldschool than the above-linked Neo, but still cool in a goofy "look what THE FUTURE will bring!!" way. Loved those things.
posted by divabat at 3:28 AM on June 6, 2008

That was back in the eighties, of course.
posted by Phanx at 3:29 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Let's try that again: If you've never run a few pages through a Hermes 3000, you're missing a treat. You can either buy one at the link for a fortune, or find one in a thrift store for $5, mint.
posted by Pliskie at 3:33 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I will say that computers can be death for brevity. I do some run-on blathering shit that ain't pretty at all when I'm writing on the computer. But a typewriter doesn't seem like an ideal solution when I can buy a notebook and scrawl to my heart's content, y'know?
posted by saysthis at 3:39 AM on June 6, 2008

I miss my typewriter.

posted by rokusan at 3:51 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

And then there is the author of multi-vol. set of books on the American Civil War who did all his writing with a dip pen to slowdown his writing process to get it right. And Edmund Wilson, who simply wrote everything in pencil and had a secretary transcribe...My guess is that a generation of very young people will know nothing of writing with pens, typewriters, or anything but what is now being sold by Apple and Microsoft et al.
posted by Postroad at 4:29 AM on June 6, 2008

I have never had to wait...
I have never had to stop...
I have never had to rewrite...
I have never had to type the same thing...

Ah...this culture of immediacy. I see this list and see an argument for thinking and planning first about what it is you want to write.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:51 AM on June 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

We have several typewriters at work - the old IBM Selectric II's that weigh eighty thousand pounds. They are all broken in one way or another, and they're expensive to fix. So we make do with things like "You hit the 'Y' and half a 'Q' gets typed".

But we have tons of pre-printed forms (law office) so the typewriters stay.

I have a collection of old typewriters at home - six or so. One of my son's friends came over (he was 6 at the time) and asked if it was a voting machine.
posted by Lucinda at 4:54 AM on June 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

The true generational divide is, did you learn how to type on a typewriter or on a computer?

Those of us on the wrong side are very sad because, at best, we're soon going to reach middle age.

Kids, lawns, etc.
posted by matteo at 4:54 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

What I miss about real typing are the carriage returns -- the lovely crank sound on a manual, and even on an electric typewriter you got that satisfying whiz-thunk when you hit the Return key. You really knew you had written a line. And don't get me started on the rrrrrrrrrrrrip of pulling out a finished page. Ah, good times [sniffle].
posted by FelliniBlank at 5:13 AM on June 6, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm 22 and I learned how to type on a typewriter-7th grade typing class. This had more to do with my junior high than anything else, since we did have a full computer lab that was almost never used for any type of schoolwork. I hated it-especially when I had to correct mistakes. Stupid correction slips.

Now I use a typewriter at work for preprinted forms, mailing labels, ect. and I'm still surprised at how different it feels. There's more weight underneath the keys, and they're so loud.
posted by dinty_moore at 5:16 AM on June 6, 2008

I love typewriters, but almost solely for aesthetic reasons. In fact, I was just given a ring that has a ":;" typewriter key on it. I love it.
posted by piratebowling at 5:22 AM on June 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

Typewriters are great if you can afford to pay someone to retype it all into a computer so it's actually useful.
posted by smackfu at 5:37 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have never had an accident where I have pressed a button and accidentally sent seven chapters into cyberspace, never to be seen again.

oddly enough, i've never had that kind of accident with a computer, either - paragraphs, yes, but seven chapters?

you back your work up for a reason
posted by pyramid termite at 5:37 AM on June 6, 2008

Having used the old way of doing things because there was little alternative at the time, I hate the old ways with hearty venom. I learned primarily on a manual typewriter thanks to the el-cheapo public schools in Florida. I remember doing finding errors on a page and knowing that meant I had to do that whole page over because you can't put the page back in. I remember those awful correction strips and fluids. I remember having to do drafts of a research paper multiple times just to get the goddam footnotes to come out right.

Loathsome, horrible, awful machines. Noisy and awful and your fingers hurt after an hour or two and it all smells and they only do one thing and even that not very well and they're just terrible things. Bleah. I should maybe buy a few just to bury them and piss on their graves.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:42 AM on June 6, 2008 [4 favorites]

I looked into getting a typewriter to save my eyes (and because I love metal, mechanical things), but I absolutely must have the ability to save documents to at least .rtf or to somehow transfer them to a computer to then save them

You want one of these and one of these.
posted by flabdablet at 5:45 AM on June 6, 2008

Mechanical typewriters lack critical keys for writing code.

Fountain pens have no such limitations.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:48 AM on June 6, 2008

I learned to type on both a manual typewriter and a computer. We always had a little portable in the house that my mother picked up at a neighbor's yard sale who-knows-how-many decades earlier. My grandmother and I would sit at the kitchen table typing pages of Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country.

In school we learned on WordPerfect (maybe 5.0), which led to me getting the typewriter's keys stuck constantly because I just went too damned fast. I blame that for my lousy typing habits; I hit the keys in the middle of the layout, and some of the punctuation, with the wrong fingers. Still manage 90wpm, though.

Thankfully, I never had to type anything of great import on that typewriter. I did manage to regularly write documents larger than whatever cut-rate word processor I used on the C=64 we finally got could handle, though.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:00 AM on June 6, 2008

Shut up, Frederick Forsyth.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:04 AM on June 6, 2008

I've largely gone to writing on a typewriter for my first drafts precisely because they slow me down, document my errors, and give me a physical object to work with. Like a lot of people of my generation (and even more like a lot of people of the generation just before mine), I believed in the marketing propaganda of progress, going from manual to electric to correcting electric to word processor to computer to computer to computer and so on, but there was always this little feeling of things getting less right with each iteration. Writing on my Commodore 64 felt good, especially at night, when I'd be sitting alone in my room, listening to a little quiet music, with just a set of amber words hanging in the air in front of me. The keys were chunky and purposeful, barely removed from their teletype origins, with a feel and a sound that was right, and the words were just words—no menu bars, clocks, docks, flickering chaotic icons or other ephemera, and the computer didn't hum, whir, or get hotter and hotter until my hands warmed to match. It was just…there, in a way that worked.

Of course, I wasn't a very good writer then, and I didn't have the patience and perseverance I have now, so it didn't count for much.

I got my first mac, which irritated me with its noise and glaring light, and another, and another. I got a laptop, which had the feel of a nice old manual portable, in its way, but all the distractions and failings, too, and then another one, after that one died at the tender age of one and a half. I switched to using an obnoxiously-expensive first-generation Matias Tactile Pro keyboard, which helped with the amorphous issue of "feel," bringing back chunky, clackety keys to make me feel like actual work was being done, but that was mostly a remedy. In a nostalgic mood, I picked up a Epson Geneva PX-8 and then a NEC PC 8201A (the wedgier rendition of the Model 100), which had the feel, but not the function, and I dragged my Kaypro II out of mothballs, but couldn't figure a way to get data in and out easily.

I became obsessed with the feel, with the object fetish, and unlike the leagues of armchair critics wielding their tedious gen-xyz withering ironic detachment, I don't relegate object fetishes to the realm of the mere hipster. We human beings are, by nature, lustful lovers of the thing, of tools and objects and gee-gaws and gimcracks. It's okay to admit that—really. It is the difference, along with altruism, between us and the bulk of the animal kingdom. We love stuff, and that's okay.

Finally, I picked up an Alphasmart 3000, which is a nearly-perfect anti-computer. No internet, no email, no graphics—just words, keys, and a taut, heavy-duty design that's more or less indestructible. Runs for months, literally, on 3 AA batteries, can sit steaming in a car trunk for days or freeze in a backpack on a trail somewhere, almost perfect. The space bar sucks, at least on mine, which is frustrating, but I still managed to write the bulk of a book of essays on the thing, and the first draft of my last big spoken word performance piece on the Capitol Limited to and from Chicago. In pursuit of a better spacebar, I picked up the Alphasmart Dana, which has a vastly better keyboard and quasi-laptop abilities, but the screen's not very good, and it's essentially unusable in low-light conditions (or airplanes, in my experience). Sigh.

Because of how my brain is wired, I became obsessed with matching my writing technique to that elusive taoist sense of rightness and wu wei (action without action), and started looking at my favorite writers and how they write (or wrote). As I looked, I found typewriter after typewriter, and countless joyously anachronistic, singular, and self-determined approaches. I obsessed, eschewed all shiny things, searched, experimented, and wound up with a lot of writing machines (I've tripled this set since then, fairly cheaply, and given some away to deserving converts and picked up a few choice models and backups).

In 2005, I wrote, exhaustively, about my obsession.

These days, things are calm again. I have every typewriter I'll likely ever need, including the two that feel exactly right to me, the Olympia SM9 and the Hermes Ambassador, and a few that I pick up when I'm in a different mood, like my Olivetti Lettera 32 for those breezier pages or my Hermes 2000 for my retrocyberpunk moments. I write on my typewriters, on my Alphasmarts, on my iBook and my Mac Mini with the clackety Matias keyboard, and I write by hand. Part of the struggle seems to be to accept the possibility that there's something good about all of these things, and to find the way to integrate them all, so I write first drafts on the typewriter or a computer (and print them out), correct them with red ink on real paper, retype (usually into a computer), and do final edits on the computer (but carefully, as computer editing has the potential, at all times, of untold destruction). The computer is lifeless, utilitarian, and pragmatic, and feels like it, where the typewriter feels good, and is genuinely pleasurable to use, in a way that is actually inspirational. Where that comes from, and whether it's just one more object fetish, is immaterial. Under my fingers, the machinery of the typewriter feels natural, even as cold and inhuman as that clockwork mechanism truly is just under the surface, and that is enough.

When everything is turning virtual, visual, and symbolic, as evidenced by my computer manufacturer of choice's sad decision to equip all their future computers with a flat, lifeless picture of a keyboard instead of an actual keyboard (remember the Atari 400 of a million years ago), it's natural for some of us to turn away, to want something we can feel and hear—something worth touching.
posted by sonascope at 6:18 AM on June 6, 2008 [12 favorites]

Fountain pens have no such limitations.

This immediately made me think of the line from Pretty Boy Floyd, by Woody Guthrie:

In this world of outlaws
I've seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen

Then I thought for a minute about how to slightly rewrite that little stanza, substituting "fountain pen" for "computer", to, well, bring it right up to date. Couldn't come up with anything in the time I allotted myself, though. "Computer" just isn't a very poetic word.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:27 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I learned how to type on an electric typewriter. My mother made me take typing class and I did even though it was kind of "girly" thing to do at the time. I am grateful to her everyday for that (and many other things). My admiration is unbounded for people who typed their dissertations with footnotes on manual typewriters.

But even while an undergrad with a PCjr at my disposal, I still wrote first drafts of papers in longhand. I still believe when it comes to writing I think better with a pencil in my hand.

Frederick Forsyth could kill a kitten a live TV tomorrow and I would still always admire him for writing Day of the Jackal.
posted by marxchivist at 6:41 AM on June 6, 2008

Mac users looking for an austere writing environment might enjoy Write Room.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:10 AM on June 6, 2008

Typewriters are just fixed gear computers.
posted by dobbs at 7:15 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I composed every single paper I wrote in undergrad on a manual typewriter, including my thirty-three page senior essay. It began as an aesthetic thing, in high school; I bought a couple of old typewriters from thrift stores and used to self-publish a little zine that I painstakingly typed up on them. It continued because I didn't have my own computer when I got to college, and didn't like writing in the crowd at the computer lab. But at some point I embraced it for its own sake—I felt like I thought more about sentences and what was to come, that every word was more considered because harder to take back.

I'm in graduate school now, and I no longer write on the typewriter, but that's in part because I live in a tiny thin-walled apartment with two other roommates who work from home, and I'd have to be a real asshole to be pounding away on my Underwood all day (especially since I get up and get working before they do). However, I still write all my essays out longhand, and still think that this is a superior way of composing. But I may just think that it's a superior way of composing for me, since there was a hard transition period from typewriter to pencil and paper where I just didn't seem to think right because the tools felt wrong, and perhaps suffering through the same transition with the computer would leave me feeling that I could write well on it, too.

I remember reading somewhere about a study that did a comparison between students composing on a typewriter and students composing on a computer and found that those using a computer were more likely to repeat themselves, but I can't seem to find it. Perhaps I made it up to support my own proclivities.
posted by felix grundy at 7:17 AM on June 6, 2008

I learned to type on an electric typewriter.

I love typewriters (currently, I have 5 or so), but they're a bit of a millstone when it comes to moving.
posted by drezdn at 7:31 AM on June 6, 2008

Oh man—maybe I could just get one of these and go back to my typewriting ways. If I had six hundred dollars. But I wonder if noiseless isn't a comparative rather than an absolute, when it comes to typewriters.
posted by felix grundy at 7:39 AM on June 6, 2008

A friend's father just shut down the typewriter repair shop he'd had for decades.
posted by tommasz at 7:45 AM on June 6, 2008

There is a certain satisfaction that comes from watching the letters actually appear on the page, and the "thwack" that accompanies each one, not to mention the satisfaction of the end of the line bell followed by the swoosh of returning the carriage. The Underwood portable manual typewriter is great, but perhaps an Underwood 5 would be even more fun, and they remain quite affordable.
posted by caddis at 7:47 AM on June 6, 2008

I'm an impatient man, and a terrible teacher, but when my septuagenarian, former school-teacher grandmother bought herself an iMac and wanted me to show her how to use it, I couldn't really refuse. Begin several hours of "Now double-click. That means click twice. Twice in a row. Fast. Okay, good, now click on the button. No, just once."

The breaking point finally came when she had to press the Return key.
"Where's the Return key?"
"The same place it is on a typewriter."
"You did learn how to use a typewriter, right?"

I gave up.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:49 AM on June 6, 2008

FoB, did she confusedly look for a silver lever over above the esc key? That's the return.
posted by Pliskie at 8:14 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I do loves my typewriters, too. I have a few sitting around our house, mostly as ornamentation, often seeded with a few lines of whimsy that allude to a longer story that might be written there. Not long ago, my 8 year old took to writing his stories on them. He can dig the machines' pure novelty, and seems to find the mechanics appealing in the way sonascope describes so well above. I can't describe how happy it makes me to see him renewing these excellent tools with fresh use.
posted by Pliskie at 8:22 AM on June 6, 2008

Other than the delicious taps, clunks, dings and zip sounds of manual typewriters, I have no use for the things.

Composing documents on a computer is at once easier, faster, more flexible, AND safer. I agree that the choice of tool can have an effect on the output, but composition, sentence construction, spelling, brevity, tautness, refinement - there are ultimately elements of CRAFT.

Otherwise, we should force all poets and playwrights to use a goose quill - they were good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, no?

Disclaimer - I'm a 3-finger typist, I've never really learned to touch-type, and I generally do outlines and rough draft in pen before starting to type.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:21 AM on June 6, 2008

in this world of outlaws
i've seen lots of looters
some will do it with a six gun
and some just use computers

and through this world you'll ramble
and through this world you'll roam
but it takes a laptop, not a sixgun
to repossess your home
posted by pyramid termite at 9:25 AM on June 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

aside from waking up at three a.m. sometimes and thinking, i need to print out *everything* before the electricity goes out forever, i couldn't imagine writing what i write without the computer. no, the aesthetic is not the same--and i learned on an IBM Selectric. i think i missed it for about eight seconds.
posted by RedEmma at 9:54 AM on June 6, 2008

Pliskie, I thought there was something wrong with that anecdote when I was typing it. I think I meant the space bar, and in that case, the principle stands.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:57 AM on June 6, 2008

Secret fact: I own four typewriters. Two Royals, a Remington, and a Perkins Brailler.

If you think bringing a laptop through airport security is a pain, try a Royal Portable in it's case. They literally had to call for backup. Thankfully the supervisor was familiar with this ancient technology.
posted by gyusan at 10:54 AM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

How exactly does one, "send [novel] chapters into cyberspace, never to be seen again"?

I mean, even on purpose, let alone accidentally.

As for typewriters, other than paranoia over data loss or getting cracked, I can't see the obsession some people have with them. Of course, I had a computer from the time I was three or four years old, so I guess it might be a generational issue.

I suspect history will treat the typewriter as a technological curiosity; a tiny blip on the radar between the eras of the handwritten word and the computer.
posted by Target Practice at 11:35 AM on June 6, 2008

the rrrrrrrrrrrrip of pulling out a finished page
All too often, that rrrrrrrrrip was the sound of the sheet actually tearing in half, followed by the thwacks and crunches of fists hitting the keyboard.

What I remember about typewriters (at least the one I used) is the narrow focus on the area immediately under where the key strikes. The body of the typewriter hid the part of the line already written and the white space remaining on the right. In the middle was a tiny window where a key clacked into view and immediately vanished, leaving another letter of a word that, for the moment, was the only existing part of what I was writing. Each succeeding keystroke pushed that word further into history, replacing it with a part of a new word that became my latest partner in whatever I was writing. With a computer, I see the entire line at once and lose the intimate association with individual words.
posted by joaquim at 12:09 PM on June 6, 2008

I suspect history will treat the typewriter as a technological curiosity; a tiny blip on the radar between the eras of the handwritten word and the computer.

I think you may be forgetting Gutenberg, movable type and the printing press.
posted by ornate insect at 12:13 PM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I suspect history will treat the typewriter as a technological curiosity; a tiny blip on the radar between the eras of the handwritten word and the computer.

Considering that the typewriter was a force for more than a hundred years, I don't think that'll be the case. At the very least, it'll be looked at as an evolutionary step, inspiring keyboard layout to terminology.
posted by drezdn at 12:33 PM on June 6, 2008

ornate insect

Not at all, I just don't consider the printing press to be in the same category. Anybody can write by hand, and anybody could use a typewriter, and anybody can use a computer; but only a relative handful of people had (direct) access to a printing press.


A hundred years is nothing. Handwriting has been around for thousands of years, and assuming we don't destroy ourselves, computers will be around for thousands more; unless of course there's some currently unfathomable technology that somehow surpasses them.
posted by Target Practice at 12:44 PM on June 6, 2008

I took typing in 8th grade because my father recommended it as a skill to have. I discovered that I was one of only two boys in a class of 30. I'm not sure to this day to which skill my father was referring.
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:52 PM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I see quite a bit of the horror at the very idea of labor and imperfection among the more vigorous anti-typewriter posts, and I find it a sad commentary on the state of writing. The bulk of criticisms are laughable enough to ignore, like the idea that you'd "run out of ribbon" on a typewriter and have to stop the thunderously-magnanimous juggernaut of your train of thought to change a ribbon (on virtually all manual typewriters and quite a few electrics, the ribbon just cycles back and forth, getting a little lighter on each pass, but never just stops, which is a purely digital-era affliction). I don't even particularly feel bothered by the histrionic fear of leaving crossed-out phrases and trails of Wite-Out to indicate where you've slipped up or changed your mind, because having a document of such changes makes it possible to go back and look into the process and technique of important writers.

I've heard more than a few people complain that using a manual typewriter "makes their hands tired," which is just silly. A manual typewriter will make weak hands tired, like the fat, flabby Dorito-stained paws I had from decades of being trapped in an office cubicle in front of a damn computer, but there's this amazing thing called "exercise," and to be more specific, "muscular hypertrophy," which happens when you make parts of your body work. Your hands get stronger and you don't get tired using them in time. It's simple, really, but an increasingly unfamiliar principle to most of my fellow countrymen.

For most of the people who use and love typewriters, those are non-issues. We're not desktop publishing or post-producing our work—that's a job for designers, editors, and publishers. We don't use a typewriter in spite of the "extra" labor involved, either. The fact is that the relationship you have with your tools affects how you work, and it is virtually impossible to have a long-term relationship with a computer, because there's not one of them that remains practical over time. As physical beings with an in-built object fixation, it is natural for us to fine-tune our technique to our tools, which is why guitarists are so finicky about their instruments, effects, and amps, or why Glenn Gould toted that damn chair everywhere. There is something synergistic in the relationship we have with our tools, and much of that synergy springs from the actual effort and physicality of their use.

How do you have a decades-long relationship with a computer? My first computer, a 1981 Apple ][ Plus, is still marginally operable, but uses disks that are unlikely to be manufactured much longer and drives that can't be maintained for lack of parts. The same is true of my Commodore 64 and 128, and my Kaypro. Components go out of production (a bugaboo of my beautiful old Prophet 5, which will eventually die for lack of CEM chips). Ports and interfaces disappear, like SCSI and the various odd-sized serial ports used in old machines, and whole ranges of gear fails for want of a single, tiny item.

Larry McMurtry has been working on his Hermes 3000 for decades now. Virtually everything Paul Auster has written comes from the same old Olympia SM9. Typewriters are a technology that's intricate and complex, but comprised of simple materials and parts, which can be manufactured by most skilled metalsmiths. There's a chance that you could buy a typewriter now (an older one, alas, as the new typewriter-building base has gone to crappy renditions of crappy models, built by slave labor in Asia) and write on it until you die. For some people, I guess that's a kind of hell. For me, it's a relationship.

And that's where the labor comes in. It's hard to write on a typewriter. It requires physical effort, a connection on an indescribable zen level, and a change in how you imagine things. It's hard to write on a typewriter because you have to actually write in your head instead of just puking out fluffy wads of brain-jabber and then going back to fix it in the mix. You actually have to think things out and tell yourself the story you mean to tell before you turn it into words, and that's a good thing. I'll grant you this—writing endless business boilerplate, scientific documentation, and doing purely descriptive, practical writing is almost certainly better on a computer, where the screen is the perfect working space for arranging amorphous and evolving ideas. For creative writing, for fiction, for poetry, I think the computer is destructive, and encourages the worst kind of writing.

Why is every paperback these days at least an inch thick? Why does every novel have to be eight hundred pages long? Brevity has been slaughtered in the Oprah's Book Club era, replaced by interminable "memoirs" that are really just badly-written fiction, retooled as autobiography to disguise what would otherwise just be a weak novel. Some of the best examples of the novel are stunningly short—finely-honed and perfectly-worded examples of the interplay between restraint and florid detail. Would The Stars My Destination be better as a bloated beach book? Is The Lathe of Heaven missing something because of its length?

I have to wonder why it's so bad that the process of writing should be laborious. The age of effortless writing doesn't seem to be producing much in the way of enduring literature, film, or television. Maybe I'm just a premature curmudgeon, though I'm a fanatical devotee of many of the wonders that the computer age has to offer. It just that the technology should somehow fit the user, and the process, rather than just the demographic. I don't doubt that there are people who can write in their heads, think things out, and then use the computer in the way they would use a typewriter, but the abuses are far more prevalent than the appropriate uses. Just my take, as they say. Your mileage may well vary.

(For what it's worth, I appreciate the irony of my writing, via computer, a long, long screed exhorting brevity and purely mechanical writing systems and would just point out what Emerson once said, that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.")
posted by sonascope at 1:02 PM on June 6, 2008 [7 favorites]

Given that you've just mounted a solid case for the computer being in some sense responsible for long, long screeds, I don't think that's irony at all.
posted by flabdablet at 5:16 PM on June 6, 2008

Frederick Forsyth, on the other hand, writes quite long novels :-)
posted by flabdablet at 5:18 PM on June 6, 2008

I think a shirt should have at least a few wrinkles in it, otherwise it seems too stiff, too... irony.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:21 PM on June 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

it is virtually impossible to have a long-term relationship with a computer, because there's not one of them that remains practical over time.

writing is not a relationship with a computer, or a typewriter, or a pencil, it's a relationship with language

How do you have a decades-long relationship with a computer?

you type on a keyboard and the ones that came with your late 80s pcs aren't significantly different than the ones you can get for today's

I have to wonder why it's so bad that the process of writing should be laborious.

i have to wonder why you think having a computer makes it unlaborious - as if the task of arranging words to tell a novel length story effectively is "easy" or that a lot of physical labor isn't still necessary to type 50-100k words

what's next? - arguing that today's readers are making it too easy on themselves because they don't move their lips?

It's hard to write on a typewriter because you have to actually write in your head instead of just puking out fluffy wads of brain-jabber and then going back to fix it in the mix.

furthermore, just having a typewriter in your house gives you the magical ability to read the minds of other writers who use computers

i'd love to talk about it more, but i've decided that i'm not paying enough attention to how clean my clothes are getting these days - i'm going to have to get up early in the morning to walk past my apartment's laundry room, past the laundromat down the road, to beat my clothes clean in the creek with rocks as i've been nowhere near mindful enough about it

then i'm going to tie up grass and straw into the shape of little strawmen and burn them to cook my meals over, as microwaves and gas ranges are just too damned easy

Your mileage may well vary.

not if you're beating a dead horse
posted by pyramid termite at 5:47 PM on June 6, 2008

I'd never use a typewriter again, because I type like shit and know, all too well, the hell of the typo on the last line of the page.

For me, the issue is that the computer comes with the TV/Mailbox/Metafilter option, which is the kiss of death. I'm seriously considering the Neo.

Sonascope's point about mental composition is sound, though. I write messier and sprawlier and sloppier with a word processor. Hand-written outlines and a hand-written rough draft help keep things tight.
posted by jrochest at 6:34 PM on June 6, 2008

I suspect history will treat the typewriter as a technological curiosity; a tiny blip on the radar between the eras of the handwritten word and the computer.

how naive
posted by caddis at 7:41 PM on June 6, 2008

I started using typewriters in college to pre-draft stories. My first was a beast of a Smith-Corona office model. My prize was/is a Smith Corona Electra that writes in cursive. I picked that one up for $15. But, in the last year and a half, I've lived in four different cities in two countries, so if it couldn't fit in a backpack or suitcase, I don't have it with me here in the Seattle area. Maybe someday I'll get it back, along with my Laserdisc collection.

Faint of Butt: That's more or less what I do for a living. It's actually not a bad gig.
posted by gc at 7:57 PM on June 6, 2008

you type on a keyboard and the ones that came with your late 80s pcs aren't significantly different than the ones you can get for today's

In fact, I bet there are not a few neckbeards typing on 20-year-old IBM type M keyboards for pretty much the same reason creative writers write on their ancient manual typewriters.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:02 PM on June 6, 2008

Target Practice asks How exactly does one, "send [novel] chapters into cyberspace, never to be seen again"? I mean, even on purpose, let alone accidentally.

Neal Stephenson answers, in "In The Beginning Was The Command Line":

The changeover took place on a particular day in the summer of 1995. I had been San Francisco for a couple of weeks, using my PowerBook to work on a document. The document was too big to fit onto a single floppy, and so I hadn't made a backup since leaving home. The PowerBook crashed and wiped out the entire file ... two different Mac crash recovery utilities were unable to find any trace that my file had ever existed. It was completely and systematically wiped out. We went through that hard disk block by block and found disjointed fragments of countless old, discarded, forgotten files, but none of what I wanted ... It was sort of like watching the girl you've been in love with for ten years get killed in a car wreck, and then attending her autopsy, and learning that underneath the clothes and makeup she was just flesh and blood.

Note that he drafted "The Baroque Cycle" using pen and paper.
posted by lhauser at 9:27 PM on June 6, 2008

Re: the aesthetic appeal of typewriters. I was pretty young when word processing began to supplant typewriting -- like twelve or thirteen when I first used a computer to write -- but for a variety of reasons, I used typewriters off and on until sometime in the early '90s, and there's something about them...manual typewriters in particular. I did have a huge fucking behemoth of an electric typewriter (body that must have been cast iron, thing had to weigh a good fifteen pounds) that hummed impressively when switched on and fired off letters like rifle shots, and that was certainly impressive; but there's a sense of physical connection between you and the words when your fingers are clacking the keys. Type soft, a gentle little click; type hard, a violent crack-crack-crack! And you can tell the difference later...the words that are nearly boldface. It's a different process, composing that way, something closer to sculpture, where something beautiful is made by hacking away at a slab of marble with a chisel. It feels like work. There is something bloodless about the computer in comparison.

But I'd never go back (unless I had to). Word processing software is so much more versatile that I almost don't understand how anything was written before. Just the act of revision must have been tedious in a way we can't even imagine anymore, unless we were well into adulthood when computers started to take over. I do think we must think very differently from writers of even a few decades ago -- that the internal editor must have been a lot stronger in those people, and that a lot more forethought must have gone into those words.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 9:40 PM on June 6, 2008

I have two IBM Selectric typewriters hanging around, and a file box of ribbons and correction tapes that ought to -- assuming they don't go bad -- last me the rest of my life, at my very slow rate of consumption. Hell, they'll probably be quite a few left over for whoever ends up buying the damn thing when I'm through with it.

I like it because it's a beautifully-designed, single-purpose device. It does one thing in the world, it does it well, and I appreciate that.

Unlike my computer, the Selectric doesn't get momentarily distracted by some antivirus/spyware/adware/whatever program running in the background, and decide to stop responding to keypresses for a while. It doesn't do a whole lot of infuriating things my computers do.

It is, in short, the perfect machine. Unlike a computer, I rarely feel like I'm fighting it. When I want to use it, I take its cover off and flip a nice big switch. The switch clicks, the motor starts, and there's a faint hum. That's it -- it's ready. No booting up, no doing a dozen other things when I want it to sit there and wait for me. Its attention, much unlike my computer's, is undivided.

No word processor that I've ever used has a user interface that is half as intuitive as the Selectric's. You want to adjust the indent? Side the stops left and right. Want to set the tab? move the carriage where you want it, and press the Tab Set key. Done. No amount of pixels on a screen will ever give a fraction of the feedback that actual metal-on-metal controls give, sliding in their grooves and locking into place. Thousands of years of experience in the real world give us an understanding of how matter interacts with itself, which software just doesn't mimic that well.

Admittedly, there are things I just wouldn't do on a typewriter, despite how perfect a machine I think it is for fixing letters onto a page. There are many, many advantages to digitization (especially editability) and I'll be the first to admit it. But we're deceiving ourselves if we think that those capabilities, and that complexity, hasn't come at a massive cost. I'm not convinced that the complexity and the cost, especially in time, are warranted most of the time.

Even if I didn't use the Selectric, I think I'd still want to keep it around, just as a reminder of what human/machine interaction ought to be like; a relationship where there's never any question as to which item is the tool and which is the user.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:50 PM on June 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

My daughter's grandmother recently got a typewriter, I imagine at a thrift store. So my daughter (who is nine) write me a nice little note on it which I keep at my desk at work. Part of what I love about it is that there is a neat little hole cut in the paper by the letter 'o' in several places. Printers just can't do that.
posted by marble at 11:42 AM on June 7, 2008

Although typewriters don't eat seven chapters at a time, an author friend of my Aunt's lost her only copy of a typewritten manuscript for a novel in the Berkeley hills fire.

Yeah - people losing the only paper copy of their novel/thesis/Theory-Of-Everything for some reason or other is practically a cliché.

Some such events were no doubt the-dog-ate-my-homework situations, where the student in question had only actually written two pages of said thesis before the "accident". But maintaining multiple, reasonably up-to-date copies of a work that you're writing onto paper is still a non-trivial problem.

Computers, as the old saw says, let you make mistakes millions of times faster than you otherwise could. You can now accidentally destroy more words in a minute than you could write in your entire life - and you are absolutely certain to, at some point, confidently order your computer to annihilate many things that you actually want to keep.

But computers also make it very easy to make backup copies of your important data. In this modern world of ubiquitous DVD burners and highly reliable USB Flash storage, any professional writer who doesn't make backups as a matter of course is like a typewriter user who decides to stack the only copy of his new novel out on the porch, weighed down by one small pebble.

Writers, in particular, have no good excuse here. We create bits at such a slow rate that the uncompressed text of Moby Dick would fit on one HD floppy disk with room to spare. The entire text content of dansdata.com, the product of not much less than ten years of my life, is less than forty megabytes of HTML. Boil the bare text out of that and it'll be considerably smaller. I just Zipped it all using 7-Zip on "Normal" and got twelve thousand and one kilobytes.

Today, files of this sort of size can trivially be backed up in eight different geographically equidistant places for less than the price of a cup of coffee a day. Any disaster that can erase all of those copies will also, probably, erase civilised humanity. Most disasters that could erase civilised humanity will not be sufficient to wipe out data that's backed up this well.

If you just love typewriters, for whatever reason, then more power to you; I'm glad that technology that took so much human ingenuity to create is still alive. It's like the people who still run hand-cranked letterpresses; if you need 500 copies of a lost-dog notice then a laser printer and/or photocopier is the right solution, but if you want your wedding invitations to have that special perfectly-indented something that only a giant creaking press can create, it's wonderful that people still do it.

I myself have a great enthusiasm for the IBM keyboards that feel just like the classic electromechanical Selectric typewriter (the Selectric was electric only in the crudest sense; you could connect a Selectric to pedals or a water-wheel and it'd still work). So, I assure you, I grasp the appeal of obviously obsolete, yet wonderful, devices.

But users of mechanical adding machines don't get to claim that they work better than a $15 scientific calculator, and users of typewriters don't get to claim that they're better than computers, unless they live in Outer Elbonia where the use of electricity will get you burned as a witch.

If I had an undying affection for typewriters, I would scan and OCR my output every day (typewriter output is all fixed-width characters, which are an absolute doddle to OCR with 99%-plus reliability these days; shit, people today are breaking high-quality CAPTCHAs at 50%-plus rates...), then dump the result to a thumb-drive or two and also FTP it to a server on the other side of the planet. If I were a technophobic successful author, it would be simplicity itself to hire someone to do these things for me.

There you go; best of both worlds. You get to thwack your thoughts onto paper and hyphen-out your mistakes, and in the event that you find yourself sitting on the curb in your pajamas watching your house burn down, you know yesterday's draft is still safe and sound.
posted by dansdata at 2:23 PM on June 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

I wonder what metafilter would look like on a typewriter.

and with some corkboard and pushpins!

(This is either a really cool or really bad performance art-esque event just waiting to happen.)
posted by NikitaNikita at 9:33 PM on June 7, 2008

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