Sunday, April 03, 2011

This Just In: Typewriters Are Hip?

The New York Times reported this last week:
Why celebrate the humble typewriter? Devotees have many reasons. For one, old typewriters are built like battleships. They survive countless indignities and welcome repairs, unlike laptops and smartphones, which become obsolete almost the moment they hit the market. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘In your face, Microsoft!’ ” said Richard Polt, 46, a typewriter collector in Cincinnati. Mr. Polt teaches philosophy at Xavier University, where he’s given away about a dozen typewriters to enthusiastic students and colleagues.

Another virtue is simplicity. Typewriters are good at only one thing: putting words on paper. “If I’m on a computer, there’s no way I can concentrate on just writing, said Jon Roth, 23, a journalist who is writing a book on typewriters. “I’ll be checking my e-mail, my Twitter.” When he uses a typewriter, Mr. Roth said: “I can sit down and I know I’m writing. It sounds like I’m writing.”

And there’s something else about typewriters. In more than a dozen interviews, young typewriter aficionados raised a common theme. Though they grew up on computers, they enjoy prying at the seams of digital culture. Like urban beekeepers, hip knitters and other icons of the D.I.Y. renaissance, they appreciate tangibility, the object-ness of things. They chafe against digital doctrines that identify human “progress” as a ceaseless march toward greater efficiency, the search for a frictionless machine.

That doesn’t make them Luddites. For many younger typewriter users, the old technology rests comfortably beside the new. Matt Cidoni, 16, of East Brunswick, N.J., keeps a picture of his favorite machine, a Royal No. 10, on his iPod Touch so he can show it off to friends. Online, he is a proud member of the “typosphere,” a global community of typewriter geeks. Like many of them, he enjoys “typecasting,” or tapping out typewritten messages, which he scans and posts to his Web site, Adventures in Typewriterdom. One of his favorite typecasting blogs, Strikethru, is run by a Microsoft employee. In Mr. Cidoni’s world view, there’s nothing technologically inconsistent about such things.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Mr. Cidoni said. “I’ve got an iPod Touch. I’ve got a cellphone, obviously. I’ve got a computer.” He also owns about 10 typewriters, which he uses for homework and letter writing at — get this — speeds of up to 90 words a minute. “I love the tactile feedback, the sound, the feel of the keys underneath your fingers,” Mr. Cidoni said.

Tom Furrier, who owns the Cambridge Typewriter Company in Massachusetts, has sold several typewriters to Mr. Cidoni and said that high school and college students have become a staple of his business. “I kept asking, ‘What are you kids doing here?’ ” he said. “But it’s been this growing thing. Young people are coming in and getting in touch with manual typewriters.”

I am having trouble swallowing some of this. Not because I didn't used to love to drag out Dad's old typewriter from the basement to "play office." Certainly not because I don't like words, or even the objectness of things. No. It's this whole concept of "thinking better while using a typewriter" that is lost on me.

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are writing a big proposal or paper or story...Now imagine you have to get it right the first time. You have to have an iron clad outline in your head. You have to think through every word before you write it down. There is no CTRL-C and CTRL-V. Even bolding has to be preconceived. Maybe it's the way I work, but the only thing I can imagine getting right "real time" is a journal entry where words can be less exact and the order of thoughts on the page isn't completely integral to their meaning.

Plus, typewriters are so heavy! Just when we've finally gotten laptops down to a reasonable weight why on earth would I want to lug a Smith-Corona with me? Reminds me of this old blog.

I think typewriters have their place. They are great toys for kindergarteners. They are great fun for playing office. The clicking sounds they make are great if you are trying to make a pretend news cast and want the sound of a news ticker in the background (yes, I have used them for that in the past, too). For now, I'll keep my Word and backspace and cutting and pasting. If that makes me unhip, it would not be the first, nor most likely the last, time.

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