Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 1, 2009

I Sing the Body Selectric

In November 25th’s entry, HERE, I wrote about some favorite writing implements of my glorious artistic career, planning to follow up with a piece about the next step in writing evolution: the typewriter, which entered my life during my Junior year in high school. As the cosmos does from time to time, chance provided me with an actual news hook just this week, via the agency of the New York Times: an article about the writer Cormac McCarthy donating his decades-old Olivetti typewriter to an auction to raise funds for the Santa Fe Institute. HERE is the article. I was charmed to read in the piece that Mr. McCarthy intends to continue using a similar typewriter, just one in better repair.

As I said, my typing life began in high school: the standard half-year course. Probably my mother insisted I have that skill. And, of course, she was correct. It has been a critical life skill, even before my first Tandy TRS-80 computer entered my life in a later decade and word processing came to define a lot of my work. I became a pretty fast typist, though accuracy was not a strength. If you don’t know, typing speed is evaluated by counting words per minute and subtracting every error; rather like scoring speed golf. I was highly motivated to excel in that class. Mrs. S., our teacher, seated us according to our performance, best typist in the first chair at the front of the room, and so forth. Since the best typist in our class was Sue, by being the second-fastest,I could sit next to a very smart, cute girl. As I said, to this day, I am a fast typist.

From that day, typing played a pretty big role, at least for schoolwork. In typing class we learned on immense manual machines that, when  you think of it, must have been darned well-built to withstand hours of typing each day by beginners, day after day, year upon year. They were beasts. At home, we had a slender little Smith-Corona electric. I can still feel the resistance of those keys under my fingers and hear the hum of the little motor. The ultimate typing challenge of that beginning time was the senior research paper for English class. Mrs. Drake had evolved and refined this form of Elizabethan revenge drama over many years of teaching. One had to visit a least two libraries, turn in file cards with notes at specified periods over six weeks, submit an outline, a first draft, all according to a detailed plan. And, of course, I resolved to type the final version. On the night before it was due. Which was also the first draft. Um … I wrote about procrastination in an earlier entry. Well, either you are a person who knows what it was like to have to use correction paper or you don’t. If you remember, you don’t need me to describe it, and if you’re too young to remember analog typing, I don’t believe I can describe the agony of trying to produce several typed pages without a single typo, when EACH TIME you make an error, you have to stop and manually correct it. You do not just backspace over the error and retype, a motion that is instinctive to word processing. It is a laborious and killing process. That single night should have cured me of my procrastination complex. No. It didn’t. But it should have.

When I went to college, my parents equipped me with a neat little portable Royal manual. Light blue. I typed many a paper, as well as letters and even a couple of short stories for Milton White’s class. I’m sure it went to graduate school with me, too, but I lost track of where it went in later years. I hope someone still has it out there. I won’t go on about other typing memories; typing evolves into what I’m doing now, typing into a word processor, and thank god for word processors. I will simply say that I am grateful that Mom, as well as Mrs. S. and, yes, Sue, got me the typing skills I have. As for Mrs. Drake, she was immensely important to me in many respects. My posthumous tribute to her is HERE.

Now, one might conclude that the advent of the personal computer would have turned typewriters into mere artifacts, used, perhaps by older writers, like Mr. McCarthy, unwilling to give up their accustomed mode of typing, or just eccentrics of various sorts. That’s not the case. Typewriters still are manufactured and widely used. In portions of the world in which computers, network infrastructure or even electricity are not available, they are indispensable. And,  worldwide, many businesses and public agencies still employ paper-based forms that require typewriters. The NY Police Department generated a lot of notice this past summer when they placed a big order for manual and electric typewriters to allow them to continue filling out their analog forms, as this story in the New York Post attests. As a result, typewriters continue to be available in a variety of forms from basic manual models to elaborate electronic ones.

An office supply store near my neighborhood advertises itself as a typewriter sales and  service center. I was curious about that, and went in to find out what the market for used typewriters really was, and also found out about the continuing market for new models. The owner of the place, who inherited the business from his parents, told me that a well-constructed typewriter provides decades of service (as Mr. McCarthy’s Olivetti proves) and can sell for significant resale prices. He said demand in his shop is quite steady for these reconditioned machines. He had several examples of what once was my Holy Grail of typewriting, IBM Selectrics, still commanding premium prices. I even saw a well-maintained version of the same little Royal manual that went to college with me: the used machine costs more in his shop than it did new in 1969.

But, I’m not tempted. There is still a Selectric somewhere in one of our offices at work if I feel the urge, but, man, there is nothing like the freedom provided by that backspace key.


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