The allure of old technology

My middle son, who lives in the trendy Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, tells me that manual typewriters are fashionable among the hip and cool. I meant to ask him if the hip and cool actually used their Underwoods and Royals or if they were merely placed them decoratively on shelves and desks in their studios to give the rooms a certain retro air or perhaps to evoke a writer’s garret in the bohemian 1920s.

However, I did notice, in a recent issue of Fine Arts & Collections magazine, that the novelist Larry McMurtry still uses a Hermes 3000 manual, the very typewriter I have stored up in the attic, and upon which I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation (title On Beyle’s Strand: A Study in Autobiography). I found a second Hermes recently and gave it to my Brooklyn-based son. But he found it too heavy to carry on the Megabus so he took instead a more light-weight Swiss machine that I’d also picked up somewhere for a few bucks. I do like typewriters and own a half dozen.

I also like fountain pens. My favorite is a Parker 51, which I know from certain markings on the nib was made in the third quarter of 1948. I was born in November 1948. For a while I used the pen with great pleasure — for scribbling notes or letters, or in marking up page proofs for review — and then one day it needed to be refilled. I put it temporarily aside, weeks passed, and I now realize that I haven’t picked it up in a long time. But I like knowing it’s there and one day I’ll flush it out and refill it with ink. Colette was just one of the many writers who swore by her Parker 51.

As it is, I mainly use disposable mechanical pencils — Papermate Sharpwriters, by preference — when I read, preferring the soft tonalities of No. 2 graphite to the bold assertiveness of indelible black ink. I also buy souvenir pencils from the various colleges, museums and tourist sites I visit, though many of these remain unsharpened in the coffeemugs that come my way from occasional book events and festivals.

These days I would find it hard to write on anything but a laptop. Just this morning I placed mine on a rather rickety lectern — picked up at a thrift store — and stood there and cranked out a piece. Hemingway, I recall, always wrote standing up, and would often sharpen a dozen pencils before beginning his day’s stint. I wish I had a stint, but somehow I seem to spend morning, afternoon and night at this desk, only getting out for meals and an occasional walk around the block. Mothers, don’t let your children grow up to be writers.

Still, why do manual typewriters, fountain pens, and even mechanical pencils continue to cast a certain spell? Is it because they are tools we can understand? That fit our hands or feel susbstantial in a way that a computer keyboard doesn’t? Do other members of the reading room enjoy keeping outmoded desk tools around their houses or workrooms? What do you swear by? A letter opener? An old paperweight? A librarian’s magnifying glass? Red rubber erasers? Crank-handled pencil sharpeners? Goldenrod schoolbook paper? Please share some of your own thoughts and feelings about the allure of such old technology.

— Michael Dirda

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