Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Typewritten Past

"But the blots, Turkey," intimated I.

"True, --but, with submission, sir, behold these hairs!  I am getting old.  Surely, sir a blot or two of a warm afternoon is not to be severely urged against gray hairs.  Old age--even if it blot the page--is honourable.  With submission, sir, we
both are getting old."
---Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener"
What was it like, before the internet?  I can barely remember it.  But I was there.

When did I get old enough to say, "I was there"?

I've had this love for typewriters since back before typing was required, back when "keyboarding" class was for kids who needed to find their way around an Apple IIE and "Typing 1 through 4" were for women who wanted to sit in lobbies and wear skirts and take cigarette breaks where they tried to seduce their bosses.  This was when I taught myself to type. 

Because I played piano pretty well, and because I had intentions of writing several novels, I figured I could teach myself and avoid associations with geeks and secretaries.  I took an old 1970s typing textbook and my Olympia desktop beheamoth and worked my way through February vacation.  Not once did I talk to Mavis Beacon.  But I got the basics down, and now if you put me in front of a well-serviced IBM Selectric I'll lay down 120 words a minute.  (I'll do the same in front of a computer, but with less satisfying noise.)

* * *

My grandmother only had three stories.  The first was about taking her Mercedes around the racetrack in Daytona, and I don't think it really happened.  The second was about taking the controls of a Cessna airplane after her second husband blacked out.  This was true.  He suffers from vertigo and extremely bad manners.  However you would assume from her telling that she actually landed the plane.  If you dug for details you'd learn that she just descended a bit and kept it straight and level until he woke back up.

Her last story was about her typing teacher and her fingernails.

My grandmother was once as pretty and rich as she was shallow.  She still looked elegant when she was older, but she'd lost her youthful looks and most of her money by the time I could know her.  And part of those looks were some long and well-tended fingernails.

At the women's junior college, her typing teacher disapproved of long fingernails.  She would threaten my grandmother: if she got anything less than a perfect score on her mid-term typing exam, she would force her to cut her fingernails off.

Can you guess the conclusion of the story?  It was the same every time.  "I got that perfect score, and my teacher couldn't have my nails."  She was still a young woman when my grandfather died, and those nails may have helped her to attract that second husband, the one with the vertigo and the bad manners.  And despite his faults she stuck with him until he killed her in a car crash that he walked away from.

So it goes.

* * *

About the typing, though: I always thought it was neat that my grandmother grew up in a world where one could take so much pride in doing such a common thing so well.

But then, it wasn't quite as common, at the time.  Secretaries typed official documents, authors typed creative documents (when they didn't use secretaries) and the rest of the folks pecked along as well as they could when they had to.  Or they didn't bother.  It was only when I could put my grandmother's childhood in perspective that I realised what a trade typing must have been.

The keyboard-entered word is so common now that it seems cheap and tawdry compared to the words of past decades.  Short, abbreviated text has become the norm.  No more than 75 characters, please!  And you can only display them in a few uniform fonts (not "typefaces, which sound lively and engaging; but "fonts," which sound more like curses, something you want to leave behind and be rid of) on tiny screens.  Our universe is more granular now, now that we have made the move from atoms to bits.  There's no room for quirks, dust, smudges, or smells on the LCD display of a smart-phone.  There's no occasion for an attorney to bark at his scriveners, "The blots, Turkey!"  nor to forgive a professional for having too much beer with lunch.  One curses, instead, about the cost of a toner cartridge, fully aware that the manufacturer has no chance of hearing, and wouldn't listen if he could.

Before the internet a thought would have to rest on the page for a time before postmen carried it to a publisher and it became available to the world.  It wasn't indexed electronically, and no one could use a trademarked term as a verb to search for it.  There were proper channels for those who wanted to publish, and most of them would turn your fingers black.

This wasn't a better state of affairs, some pre-electronic Eden we should set out to reclaim.  But the old ways did lead one to put a certain care and deliberation behind one's communications, which came across to the reader as respect and good manners.

When a typo on the final draft meant reproducing an entire page letter by letter, accuracy and care became well-ingrained habits.

Once my facility with the typewriter surpassed that of the pen, it was a great discovery that a sheet of carbon paper would allow me to both mail a letter and keep it too.  To make a copy with no extra effort--Melville's scriveners would have swooned at such facility!  (Or would they have despaired at pending unemployment.)  Parsimony with my own words had led me to to feel I should hoard them--banking, perhaps, against some future blight of original thought, when for inspiration I might want to page through and rediscover the methods I once used to woo a high school sweetheart.

"You be careful with those notes you're always passing back and forth," the mother of one such sweetheart advised me.  "You should realise that once you become famous and successful, all your juvenilia will be published and scrutinised in academic journals."

Flattering as it was to assume anyone would care, I came to find this an unhealthy attitude.  One cannot live a satisfying life while feeling unduly concerned about the opinions of their biographer.  Kids really should be passing long, impassioned, perhaps even erotic (so long as they are literate) missives to each other when they pass in the hallways.  The possibilities for anticipation and savour are so far beyond what's possible with instant messages and "texts", that to compare the handwritten note to the text message would be like comparing lovemaking with pornography.

But one should not expect the handwritten note to last.  Perhaps my originals are out there still in the attic shoeboxes of old friends and sweethearts.  But the binder where I obsessively kept my carbons has long been mislaid in one move or another, and this is probably the first time that I have thought of it since high school.

Meanwhile the missive that you've sent from your phone to another's, or posted to Myspace or Facebook, has multiplied and copied and propagated across servers to live forever, annotating and incriminating.  Or maybe it will degrade and disappear through bit-rot.  No one will be sure until some lawyer or secret policeman has occasion to search for it.

And we wrote letters every day
Which were later thrown away
And God knows what we wrote, or what they said
But this is probably how they read

musical interlude *

I left the letters behind
In the basement of the apartment building when we moved
For the mice to nibble on.
I wonder how long they lasted.

-- The Fiery Furnaces, "We Wrote Letters Every Day"

Rough draft:


  1. I love this post, darling hubby. What you spoke of your grandmother was darling and yes, I too remember her three stories and I DO believe the mercedes race track one, it was sad that the actual car had to rot away in the garage in the salt air. Such Dickensionian habits and actions around that family.
    I am glad you included the typewritten rough draft of your post. Yes, everyone, he types his post first on the typewriter and with the pipe it is VERY 1956 around here!

  2. Indeed, a very, must I say, well-written text, dear Sir.

    This quote struck a chord with me: “When a typo on the final draft meant reproducing an entire page letter by letter, accuracy and care became well-ingrained habits.” Oh, do I remember THOSE days. And, yes, it was “Typing” class not “Keyboarding”. (And the sound of the typewriter does wipe out the keyboard any day.)

    So ingrained in me still, the consequences of errors (though I seem to make many), that I cringe at not including my commas, capitals, and periods in texting.