Every time I read another dire warning about computers becoming sentient and taking over the world, I’m comforted by watching my iMac try to address an envelope. Persistence is futile.
Millennials wouldn’t know it, but there used to be a machine that could do that job in a snap. And fill out forms. And produce the satisfying clickety-clack of real writing. Compared to a great old typewriter, the blinking cursor on today’s screens looks as soulless as a shark’s eye.
In those glorious olden days, we had a relationship with our typewriters that no computer can ever match. In 1983, I spent $800 on a new typewriter and $425 on an engagement ring. Anyone who understands the economics of that passion should get a copy of “The Typewriter Revolution,” by Richard Polt. Billed as “A Typist’s Companion for the 21st Century,” this delightfully illustrated book grew out of a Web site that Polt started in 1995 to connect with like-minded collectors of antique typewriters. Years later, he pecked out “The Typewriter Manifesto,” a proclamation of the typospherians’ determination to resist the enfeebling aspects of the Internet Age. It concludes:
We choose the real over representation,
the physical over the digital,
the durable over the unsustainable,
the self-sufficient over the efficient.
THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TYPEWRITTEN.
For Polt, using a typewriter is an act of political resistance and consciousness raising akin to biking to work and putting solar panels on your roof. “Whenever we create on our typewriters,” he writes, “we’re choosing something that violates the digital Paradigm — something durable, intimate, focused, and self-sufficient. . . . We rebel against the totalitarianism of the Information Regime.”
This could all get shrill fast — like that weird college friend who thinks you should grow kale in soil fertilized by your own waste — but Polt has a light, self-mocking tone that makes the book a pleasure to read. And it’s packed with fascinating history and photos (well, fascinating to me).
The beginning collector will find wise counsel in these pages about how to shop for “the right typewriter to join the insurgency.” The curious owner will learn how to keep a typewriter running and inked (In Chapter 4: “Squashed Feed Rollers” — but I shouldn’t say anything more; I don’t want to ruin it for you.)
Later chapters offer portraits of famous typewriter users, such as J.K. Rowling and Jonathan Franzen, and not-so-famous typewriter cults. (If you’re lucky, your teenage daughter will join that kind.) Polt even considers blending enemy worlds: Hooking an iPad to your favorite Olympia. (Zounds!) Ironically, the next generation of 3D printers is expected to preserve typewriters by producing essential replacement parts for those aging machines.
Polt, who teaches philosophy at Xavier University in Cincinnati, claims there’s nothing antique about his steampunk enthusiasm. “The typewriter revolution is not nostalgic,” he writes. “It points a way forward, creating a space for concentration and self-reliance in the information age.”
When the sun finally sends out an electromagnetic surge that fries every e-mail message on Earth, we’ll wish we’d written our love letters on a Smith-Corona.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles
By Richard Polt
Countryman. 382 pp. Paperback, $23.95