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Type-cast

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There’s an article in the BBC Magazine on why people still use typewriters:

They’re clunky, dirty and can’t access the internet, yet every year thousands of people buy typewriters when they could probably afford a computer. Why?

When asked how he writes, Frederick Forsyth has a simple answer. “With a typewriter.”

He admits this is to avoid the more difficult business of describing his creative process, but it also means he can celebrate old friends.

There was the steel-cased portable he used as a foreign correspondent in the 1960s. “It had a crease across the lid which was done by a bullet in Biafra. It just kept tapping away. It didn’t need power, it didn’t need batteries, it didn’t need recharging. One ribbon went back and forward and back until it was a rag, almost, and out came the dispatches.”

And after 50 years and a dozen novels including The Day of the Jackal, why change now, he asks.

“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.”

Although he laughs as he says it, Mr Forsyth identifies the continuing attraction of a typewriter for thousands of people. They find a computer distracting, unreliable or just plain terrifying, and they have a love for the tangible. As he puts it, “I like to see black words on white paper rolling up in front of my gaze”.

Mr Forsyth’s novels are so popular that he could write them in the sand and publishers would still queue up for his business. But who else is still pounding rather than pressing their keyboard?

[..]

The writer Will Self is a convert. He went back to using a manual typewriter several years ago. “I think the computer user does their thinking on the screen, and the non-computer user is compelled, because he or she has to retype a whole text, to do a lot more thinking in the head,” he said in a recent interview.

A couple of years back, the Design Observer’s Rick Poynor dug out his:

What a mixture of emotions a machine can stir. I bought my Olympia Monica S in Croydon, south London, from an office supply shop when I was 20. It was a decisive moment. I wanted to write and a typewriter was the essential tool of the trade, an instrument every bit as vital as a paintbrush is to a painter or a guitar to a guitarist. Longhand was never an option. Acquiring a typewriter, particularly if you had no plans to become a secretary, was a sign of identity, a declaration of commitment and intent. After two failed attempts to teach myself to touch-type on another machine, investing in my own obliged me to get serious and stick with the exercises for a month until I had disciplined my fingers to find the keys without looking.

[..]

I did quite a lot of unpublished writing on my Olympia, but by the time I became a journalist in 1984 the PC had arrived. Word processing’s advantages were obvious and I was happy to upgrade. You can’t just brush the keys of a manual typewriter. You really have to hit them. That character has to arc through the air on its metal stalk and thwack the ink on to the paper. Correcting errors is messy and boring. Redrafting is worse. Typing can be an unglamorous slog. I operated PCs and later Macs at work and bought a Compaq portable computer the size of a small suitcase for a ridiculous sum and used its tiny green screen to “keyboard” the text of my first book. For years, I treated computers as little more than glorified typewriters with a memory and a built-in word counter. The point, of course, is that the computer has never been a dedicated writing tool — writing is the least of it — and everyone uses them. They are somehow both more marvellous and more ordinary. That’s why there isn’t a shred of romance in the idea of a writer and his or her personal computer.

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Hemingway famously said, “Typewriters write like people talk,” so it’s hardly a surprise that writers are fans and Poynor goes on to point out the fine history of writers and their machines: Mark Twain and his Sholes & Glidden typewriter in the 1870s, Jack Kerouac‘s Underwood, Thomas Pynchon‘s Olivetti, Ernest Hemingway‘s Royal Quiet De Luxe Portable, and not forgetting The Story of My Typewriter, Paul Auster‘s love letter to his Olympia SM 9. Says Auster: “Since… 1974, every word I have written has been typed out on that machine..Like it or not, I realized we [Auster and the Olympia] had the same past. As time went on, I came to understand we had the same future.”

Even William Gibson, the father of Cyberpunk, has waxed lyrical on the joy of the Selectric, the must-have of its day: “The IBM Selectric, when I started writing for publication, was the most shit-hot professional writing machine on the planet; by the time I could have afforded one, they were propping up broken barbecue grills in Value Village”.”

Rick Poynor may lament the fate of the younger generation of writers, raised on computers—“Consider, by way of digital contrast, the mental image of Zadie Smith toiling away at the screen of her iMac G5, or Jonathan Safran Foer punching the keys of his 17-inch SuperDrive PowerBook. I made those up, but let’s face it they just don’t resonate in the same way”—and while Nick Hallows is at pains to point out that “Royals and Underwoods are not elbowing PCs and Macs off the desk with their jabby little carriage return levers,” he says typewriters, “even for the technologically savvy…have their uses.” Long live the typewriter.

First posted: Thursday, June 5th, 2008.

There are currently 2 comments on this post. You can follow all the comments on this post through this RSS feed.

  1. Oh, lovely piece. I still do much of my “proper” writing longhand in a notebook and then “type” it up on the laptop — I can’t imagine ever using a typewriter (I even learned to touchtype on a keyboard) … but love this piece!

  2. I started writing on my mother’s typewriter when I was a child and always loved the analogue feel. Then I switched to notebook computers because they seemed more professional. Now I write longhand. I think Will Self makes a great point – but why can’t he have that feeling with handwriting?

    There are things I don’t miss about typewriters, the incessant clatter of the keys and my numb index fingers. The wonderful thing about typewriters is the freedom from being being modulated by software like Microsoft Word, which wants to turn your writing into an business memo.

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