Review: The Typewriter (In the 21st Century)

Today it’s all about speed and ease of access and cross-platform accessibility, but there is something to be said for a slower process of writing and the mechanical experience of using a typewriter. When I first started writing and publishing I worked on an old Royal manual typewriter. With the Royal typing was like heavy manual labor. Then for years I used an IBM Selectric, which was a bit like driving a car which was too powerful and kind of scary and never really in control. Somewhere in there I also had an Olivetti portable which is long gone and unlamented. Too weak, too Italian and too insubstantial for serious work.

I’ve moved on with the technology, but the typewriter still holds a certain mystique and I sometimes miss the process. Apparently there are people who share a much stronger bond to the typewriter than I do. There are authors who still use the manual they started writing on 40 years ago because they think changing hardware will change their writing style. There are designers who just like the look of the type which comes from the mechanical process of typing. There are some who collect typewriters as a link to an older era and the writers they admire. There are others who see the machine itself as a work of art, and it’s certainly true that there are some beautiful and unique typewriters in an almost 150 year history of mechanical design.

The fascination with the typewriter endures. If you want a look at those who still revere the machine and its process, there’s a neat little recently-released documentary directed by Christopher Lockett, available for free on Amazon, called The Typewriter (In the 21st Century). It offers interesting insights and introduces some fascinating characters, like the poet who incorporates the use of a typewriter to make his poetry-on-demand business into a kind of performance art.

Some of the typewriter obsessed are charming. Some are annoying poseurs, Maybe the most interesting are the many typewriter repairmen who are still in business and share insights about their customers.  The appeal to young people who were  born after the end of the typewriter era is particularly interesting.  I know my kids find mechanical typewriters fascinating, drawn by the romance and the pure mechanical art of the machine.

For me the brief interview with Jack Zylkin, an engineer who turned a mechanical typewriter into a USB keyboard for a tablet was particularly interesting.  The idea of preserving the mechanical tactile experience while still having the portability of electronic data is very appealing. Zylkin sells his USB converted typewriters for $600-$900 or a kit to do your own conversion for less than $100 at his website. Now I know what I want for Christmas.

I don’t agree with the aficionados who think that using a computer makes your work superficial or scatterbrained or overly facile, but there is something to be said for the more labored and considered process of working on a typewriter. Being forced to stop and think about your words as you write them is good for the writing process.

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