Monday, August 5, 2013

We Gather Together Today to Praise the Typewriter

The New York Times ran a nice piece over the weekend by Tom Hanks about his enduring affection for the typewriter. The acclaimed 57-year-old actor and traditionalist apparently still uses one, every day. It's hard to believe that anyone still hammers away on a typewriter in this age of computers and texting. But it's comforting somehow. 

When I began my writing career in the 1980s, personal computers were already available. But I was a holdout. I stubbornly stuck with my IBM Selectric. Yes, you had to plug it in to make it work, but it was a typewriter nonetheless. 

The trusty IBM Selectric
Before I knew what a modem was, I regularly filed - that is, faxed – stories to such publications as the New York Times, Los Angles Times Syndicate, Premiere, TV Guide and Sports Illustrated. And I wrote all of these stories on that trusty IBM. 

Eventually, I acquiesced. You can't out swim a tidal wave. But it wasn't easy. I'm no technophobe, but I felt a pang of sadness on that day when I purchased a computer, got an email account, and put my typewriter on the shelf. I still have that typewriter here in my office, if only for nostalgia's sake. I'll never throw it away.

I'm sure many people reading this, especially those of you who reside somewhere north of 50, share my passion for the typewriter, specifically the classic Underwood. As you may have noticed, I pay homage to the typewriter on this blog's header above. There's a bittersweet mystique surrounding the Underwood, which was the first widely successful modern typewriter. 

Jack Kerouac typing away
Historians say Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, who was one of the fastest typists among writers – approaching 120 wpm – typed his classic novel On the Road on an Underwood owned by Neal and Carolyn Cassidy in three weeks while living in Cassidys’ house.

Other notables who used an Underwood include Ernest Hemingway, John F. Kennedy, Tom Wolfe, Damon Runyon, James Thurber, E.B. White, Sinclair Lewis, Raymond Chandler, Upton Sinclair, Carson McCullers, Carl Sandburg and Paddy Chayefsky.  

Curiously, Hanks and his fellow boomers aren't the only ones who still use the antiquated device. The typewriter is making a comeback of sorts. Just as we are seeing the resurgence of vinyl records, there is now something called the "typosphere," a new term for bloggers who collect and use typewriters. 

Writer Rita Savard points out out that regularly scheduled type-ins give these bloggers a place to trade in their laptops for "rickety black boxes." 

It may only be a fad. But I think young people are beginning to understand the appeal of and indeed the deeper physical connection writers of days past had with the "machines" they used to communicate. Yes, the almost addicting physicality of using a typewriter. 

Kerouac, for example, who was an exceptional athlete, loved typing. For him, it was a physical, even athletic event. You just can't say that about thumb texting.


  1. Jamie:

    I agree with you 100%. When I returned from Vietnam in 1970 and started writing my first book, The Advisor, the IBM Selectric was absolutely state-of-the-art. So I bought one and started hammering out the book. Back then, I thought, "This is as good as it gets." Like you, I finally had to give it up but I still have it somewhere. Thanks for reminding us what a great machine it really is.
    John Cook

    1. thanks john. great to know your book was written on a typewriter. you are in very good company.

  2. I still have a Royal portable, and was once able to do 70wpm on it, but no more -- the distance the keys travel, and the differences between key travel [when compared to the homogenized computer keyboards of today] make typing on that puppy a hunt-and-peck adventure at best.

    But my rate on an iPad or other keyless device would be zero, because I refuse to tap on a plate of glass...

    1. i agree, bob. the only time i tap on a plate of glass is when I'm at the penguin exhibit at sea world.

  3. Awesome story. As a writer that can type 100 words per minute, I do miss the sound of the bell every few seconds. A person in the room would always say "Damn, you type fast!"
    Here's my favorite recent typewriter story. As an adult, I purchased my dream car (1969 Jaguar XKE). I never took it to car shows. One time I did, because I knew my parents were going and thought it would be funny for them to walk by and see it. I didn't want to stand by my car, and act like others that want to brag about every cubic square inch of the big motor they put in, or bore you with other details about the car when really, you just liked the flames they painted on the side. Well, I had been thinking about buying an old typewriter. Something from 1910. I walked into an antique store, found one that was just perfect. One of the big name companies, which I forget now. It was $150, and as I'm carrying it out to put in my car, my parents had shown up. They were standing by my car. My stepdad says "We thought that was your car." My mom said, "Why are you buying a typewriter? Don't you write all your stories on computer now?"

    1. Thanks Josh. I assume it took you about a minute and 1/2 (or less) to write this? :)

  4. But I think young people are beginning to understand the appeal of and indeed the deeper physical connection writers of days past had with the "machines" they used to communicate