My parents weren't the only ones surprised to discover that my old manual Remington typewriter still worked. Actually, it was my father's — it passed into my hands after years after he had stopped using it. He'd bought it to write a paper, sometime in the early Sixties, and then I'd picked up on it and used it to write I don't know how much material for school. And then our computers came along, and the Remington was retired to a corner of the attic, where it stayed until this past weekend when I was seized with the overwhelming urge to pull it back out and rehabilitate it.
The good news: the typewriter still worked. The keys were all functional, the machinery all still in good working order. The bad news: it had been sitting in storage for so long, the rollers that helped advance the paper through the machine had been crushed flat on one end, and so it couldn't feed paper properly. This led to some other amusing realizations:
1) The text that comes out of a rundown typewriter, no matter how literate or carefully composed, always ends up looking like either a) the sleep-deprived ditherings of some tin-foil-hatted maniac who never leaves the house or b) a ransom note. Capital letters are either too high or too low. Lines run together. The paper skews as it reaches the end of the page. The "o" key must be a lamprey's mouth, so fiercely does it bite into the page. (The middle of each such character was embossed hard enough to fall out if I so much as curled the paper the wrong way.) You could write a love letter to your wife of a dozen years and it would still come off as the product of the sort of mind that prowled shady neighborhoods luring kids with candy.
2) You never completely get used to how much force is required to operate a manual typewriter. By the time I'd filled a single-spaced page, the tips of my fingers all felt like they'd been pressed against an industrial sander. Switching back to my regular keyboard felt like picking up a feather pillow after toting around anvils.
3) I'm sensitive, deliberately so, to how much paper I use. Rather than print something out these days, I just send a copy of it to my phone if I can help it. Typing directly on the paper now feels like the literary version of driving a car that gets single-digit gas mileage. Of course, I leave to the reader the irony of saying that when I've gone from a typewriter which uses zero energy (save for whatever Kcals I expend banging on it) to a PC setup which burns 300+ watt-hours.
And yet — there's something about the enforced discipline of a typewriter which is refreshing. You have to say things right the first time, and that forces you to think about every word and every sentence all the way through to the end, and beyond as well. A manual typewriter doesn't need to be rebooted or even powered up; all it needs is machine oil, fresh ribbon, and plenty of paper.
If I had the money to blow, I'd pick up a Royal (the last remaining manual typewriter still being made today) and use that for writing exercises in much the same way people write drafts longhand. But that $100 might well be better spent on the new kitchen floor, the new yard fence, the next doctor's visit ... or the replacement for this PC, which really is getting a little bewhiskered, and which I do use for more than just pounding out manuscripts.
I wrote all of the above in the time it took me to produce one double-spaced page on the Remington. The amount of work required to finish a single sentence was humbling ... and I work to get work done, not to humble myself. And while typewriters don't need rebooting or logging on, they find any number of their own ways to be just as obstructive, ways we have chosen to live without.
So maybe there really is such a thing as progress, and maybe you really can't go home again.
(Yes, Patrick Farley, this one's for you. Kudos.)
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind