I use a manual typewriter — and the U.S. Postal Service — almost every day. My snail-mail letters and thank-you notes, office memos and to-do lists, and rough — and I mean very rough — drafts of story pages are messy things, but the creating of them satisfies me like few other daily tasks.
Keeping score at a baseball game with a typewriter is not only possible but is also a much more detailed record of the match. (ORTEGA. Full count! Fouled back three in a row. OH, THAT BALL'S LANDIN' WHERE THE FANS ARE STANDIN'!!! Walk. Off. Home. Run. Thanks for your attendance and drive safely.)
I confess that when real work has to be done — documents with requirements equal to a college term paper — I use a computer. The start and stop of writing begs for the fluidity of modern technology, and who doesn't love choosing a new font like Franklin Gothic Medium, Bernard MT Condensed or Plantagenet Cherokee?
For less important doodles in text, the kind that go no farther than your desk or refrigerator door, the tactile pleasure of typing old school is incomparable to what you get from a de rigueur laptop. Computer keyboards make a mousy tappy tap tappy tap like ones you hear in a Starbucks — work may be getting done but it sounds cozy and small, like knitting needles creating a pair of socks. Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK. A thank-you note resonates with the same heft as a literary masterpiece.
The sound of typing is one reason to own a vintage manual typewriter — alas, there are only three reasons, and none of them are ease or speed. In addition to sound, there is the sheer physical pleasure of typing; it feels just as good as it sounds, the muscles in your hands control the volume and cadence of the aural assault so that the room echoes with the staccato beat of your synapses.
You can choose the typewriter to match your sound signature.
Remingtons from the 1930s go THICK THICK. Midcentury Royals sound like a voice repeating the word CHALK. CHALK. CHALK CHALK. Even the typewriters made for the dawning jet age (small enough to fit on the fold-down trays of the first 707s), like the Smith Corona Skyriter and the design masterpieces by Olivetti, go FITT FITT FITT like bullets from James Bond's silenced Walther PPK. Composing on a Groma, exported to the West from a Communist country that no longer exists, is the sound of work, hard work. Close your eyes as you touch-type and you are a blacksmith shaping sentences hot out of the forge of your mind.
Try this experiment: On your laptop, type out the opening line of Moby Dick and it sounds like callmeishmael. Now do the same on a 1950s Olympia (need one? I've got a couple) and behold: CALL! ME! ISHMAEL! Use your iPad to make a to-do list and no one would even notice, not that anyone should. But type it on an old Triumph, Voss or Cole Steel and the world will know you have an agenda: LUGGAGE TAGS! EXTENSION CORDS! CALL EMMA!
You will need to make space for a typewriter and surrender the easy luxury of the DELETE key, but what you sacrifice in accuracy will be made up in panache. Don't bother with correcting tape, white-out or erasable onionskin paper. There is no shame in type-overs or XXXXXXiing out a word so mistyped that spell-check could not decipher it. Such blemishes will become the personality of your typing equal to the legibility, or lack thereof, of your penmanship.
The physicality of typing engenders the third reason to write with a relic of yesteryear: permanence. Short of chiseled words in stone, few handmade items last longer than a typed letter, for the ink is physically stamped into the very fibers of the paper, not layered onto the surface as with a laser-printed document or the status-setting IBM Selectric — the machine that made the manual typewriter obsolete. Hit the letter Y on an East German Erika typewriter — careful now, it's where the Z key is on an English language keyboard because German uses the Z more often — and a hammer strikes an ink-stained ribbon, pressing the dye into the paper where it will be visible for perpetuity unless you paint it over or burn the page.
No one throws away typewritten letters because they are pieces of graphic art with a singularity equal to your fingerprints, for no two manual typewriters print precisely the same. Emails disappear from all but the servers of Google and the NSA. No one on the planet has yet to save an Evite. But pull out a 1960s Brother De Luxe 895, roll in a sheet of paper and peck out, "That party was a rocker! Thanks for keeping us dancin' till quarter to three," and 300 years from now that thank-you note may exist in the collection of an aficionado who treasures it the same as a bill of sale from 1776 for one dozen well-made casks from Ye Olde Ale Shoppe.
The machine, too, may last as long as the rocks of Stonehenge. Typewriters are dense things made of steel and were engineered to take a beating, which they do. My dad's Underwood, bought used just after the war for his single year at USC, had some keys so worn out by his punishing fingers that they were misshapen and blank. The S key was a mere nib. I sent it to a shop for what was meant to be only a cleaning, but it came back with all the keys replaced. So long, Dad, and curse you, industrious typewriter serviceperson.
Still, I have the machine and it works, as do most of the typewriters that take up space in my office, home, storage facility and trunk of my car, a collection that started when, in 1978, the proprietor of a Cleveland business machine shop refused to service my mostly plastic typewriter.
"A worthless toy!" the man yelled. Yes, yelled. He pointed to shelves full of his refurbished typewriters — already decades old yet all in perfect working order. A typewriter was a machine, he yelled, which could be dropped from an airplane and still work! He gave me a deal on a Hermes 2000 ("The Cadillac of typewriters!"), which featured a knob that adjusted the tension on the keys and the crispest, straightest line of type possible. I've since added the 3000, the Baby and the gloriously named Hermes Rocket to my shelves. Cadillacs, every one!
There is no reason to own hundreds of old typewriters other than the sin of misguided avarice (guilty!). Most can be had for 50 bucks unless, say, Hemingway or Woody Allen typed on them. Just one will last generations — if it is cleaned and oiled every once in a while. The ribbons are easy to find on eBay. Even some typewriters made as late as the 1970s can be passed on to your grandkids or encased in the garage until the next millennium, when an archaeologist could dig them up, hose them down and dip them in oil. A ribbon can be re-inked in the year 3013 and a typed letter could be sent off that very day, provided the typewriter hasn't outlived the production of paper.
Come to think of it, I'd better start hoarding stationery and pray the post office survives.
© 2013 New York Times