Mental Floss reminds me that February is International Typewriter Appreciation Month. There’s something a little plaintive about this obscure annual observance. It’s a reminder of the charm (and — be honest — the frustration) we gave up to enter the computer age. Nowadays, our newsroom is as quiet as a Christian Science Reading Room. Many of the editors and reporters have never actually seen a typewriter. When I ask them, “How do you address an envelope?” they think, “What’s an envelope?”
In high school, being able to type very fast was the closest I came to athletic prowess. (Even at band camp, this was not considered particularly noteworthy.) I typed for hours every day on my mom’s black Royal, which weighed as much as a Dodge Colt. Today, when my Canon printer suddenly runs out of ink, it’s game over, but the tough ribbon on the Royal just got fainter and fainter. Like Elisha with the cruse of oil, you could always, miraculously, fill one more page.
Writing was careful business back in those Olden Days. Misspellings — still the bain of my existance — could ruin a whole page. I made heavy use of a round rubber eraser with a tail. (There’s a giant one by Claes Oldenburg in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden that always thrills me with the thought of what enormous mistakes I might correct.) On bad days, my pages were filled with translucent holes where I’d rubbed away an error and tried again. Liquid Paper, the invention of a resourceful secretary in Texas, changed my life, even if it enabled me to be a bit more careless. Dozens of little bottles of that fast-drying paint made my desk look like the work station of a monochromatic cosmetician.
But even Liquid Paper couldn’t absolve us from the need to redo whole pages. And that process of retyping every word taught me how to revise — how to re-see — in a way that I don’t think keyboarding kids learn today. Ironically, on the computer, the first draft seems set in stone. After all, it immediately looks pretty good. It’s easy to fiddle with a few words, but there’s no need to reconsider each letter and punctuation mark as we did back when the snow was this high and men were men.
Even after I got a TRS-80 computer, I kept pounding on a typewriter. During my senior year in college, I withdrew $820 — about $2,500 today — in $20 bills from my savings and loan and drove nervously to a typewriter store in Webster Groves, Mo. There I purchased the most glorious machine I have ever — will ever — own: an electronic Brother typewriter with interchangeable type wheels. Maybe I didn’t have the coolest clothes, but I was fontastic! In mere seconds, I could start typing words in italics. I could even switch from Times New Roman to Courier. (In middle school, this had required running between two different typewriters and carefully realigning the page.) When I was in the zone, my fingers could dance on the keys just a little faster than the Brother could move, which produced a perfectly even staccato as the wheel spun around in a blur, punching my words onto the paper. This typewriter was so advanced, in fact, that I could eventually attach it to my computer and turn it into a printer, which was the beginning of progress, which is to say, the beginning of the end.
A few months later, my girlfriend didn’t even mind when I spent half as much on her engagement ring. She was in it for the long game. I lost my beloved Brother decades ago. I still have my beloved wife.