Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Costs of Forcing the Anachronism

It's becoming harder than ever to live the anachronism as the rest of the world turns to tools and toys we have reservations about. 

To stay in touch with Facebook, for example.  Broadcasting carbon-copied letters with the minutiae of our lives to all our friends around the world for just the price of electricity.

To live second lives in the fantasy world of an MMORPG,  Battle after battle bringing a gradual accumulation of wealth, while we don't tire out more than a finger muscle. 

To communicate with anyone in the world who wants to follow our Twitter stream.  It's a miracle of public relations!  The only barrier between ourselves and our audience now is our own vapidity, the marketplace of ideas the ultimate laissez-faire free economy, rewarding the fascinating and clever with eyeballs and attention.  (Granted, you have to be fascinating and clever and have the equipment to blog, but these are low hurdles in this age of falling electronics prices and rising unemployment.)

As much as I'd love to get on-board, this all makes me very uneasy.

These electronic readers, now.  Folks resist them at first.  People have an attachment to books.  They're sacred, nothing like CDs or VHS tapes.  Everyone talks about how much they want to hold a book in their hands, turn the pages, smell the paper.  They say they'll never exchange their library for another electronic gadget.  But there's no mistaking the thrill in their eyes when they realise they can hold thousands of books on one machine, or download millions of titles instantly, from anywhere.  I feel the thrill myself.  After moving house 16 times in 33 years, the argument that this gadget could free up my shelf space and reduce my clutter reaches right into my limbic system and strokes my pleasure center.  If it weren't for my stubborn refusal to associate my identity with a credit card number, I'd be tempted to pick one up. 

But I've also got the reservation that a digital library can be wiped out in one hard drive failure.  (Solar flareElectromagnetic pulse, anyone?) and that despite every benevolent corporation's promise to maintain copies of every book I've purchased along with my paid licences for reading, we need only look back a handful of years to see how quickly corporations can dissolve, and wonder, what happens to all the precious data I've licensed, if that happens.  Who takes care of my digital library when goes away?

Meanwhile, my physical books are my own responsibility, and I need only protect them from flood and fire.

I've got this constant tug-of-war going on between lust for the shiny and new, and a desire to preserve and make do -- and dig in my heels.  There's no denying the net increase in pleasure and well being brought about by scientific advancement and the introduction of new gadgets.  But am I really happier with my iPod than my stack of CDs?  And does this cell-phone make me any happier than the wall-mounted rotary phone I grew up with? 

I grew up with a lot of hand-me-downs: grandfather's 8-track players, the Atari 2600 the tenant left behind in the rented room, older brother's reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I learned to enjoy technology on its terms, not mine.  So I mess around with Linux distributions, making old computers work as well as they can.  I lubricate an old bicycle picked up for free on the side of the road.  I think: here is the hand-me-down or the estate-sale find.  What does it have left within it that I can bring out?  I never think, here is a thing I'd like to do, let's go out and get the equipment that'll help me do it.  Objects are not so much tools as an obligation for me.  Here's an old lamp, better find a place to use it.  Here's a stack of old grocery bags.  I can't possibly throw them away.  What can I possibly do with them?

Is it any wonder that the acquisition of more stuff fills me with trepidation?

So I try to romanticise the stuff nobody wants any more.  I may not be able to afford the exclusive experience, the vintage wine, the rare cigar.  But I can pick up the furniture at the dump that has been through a lifetime of use already.  Nobody else in the world is going to have that.  I can spend hours in the musty basement of the used bookshop, sniffing the pages of books nobody is going to buy in these precious years before the shops shut down and disappear entirely.  I feel compelled to save these anachronisms, because I hate to see them discarded and turned into toxic waste.  Instead, they can be just mine. 

It's an easy and affordable way to feel unique, at least, this embracing of discarded artifacts.  For those of us who can't afford to play the consumer game as it's been laid out, those who don't have the cash or ready credit to accessorise their iPads with patent leather accessories from Kate Spade, or to keep up with H&M clothing stores' 26 annual fashion seasons.  IKEA gives us thousands of ways to customise our living rooms in their 200 page catalogue, but if we have the patience to sift through the garbage, we can put together a space nobody else in the world has, for free.

Perhaps it's because I have no children.  Maybe I'm turning into one of those neurotic middle aged men who assign importance to all the wrong things, worried more about the location of their misplaced walking stick than the performance of their retirement portfolio.

But I'm not the only one who is this way.  I wrote last week about a co-worker who loves typewriters as I do.  (She, likewise, has no desire for children, but loves dogs.)  Even more recently I was speaking with another co-worker, a young man who may not be old enough to drink, but who has always impressed me with his thoughtful dress sense, the manner with which he tips his antiquated hats, and the care he takes in hand-rolling his cigarettes. 

Despite these cues, it still surprised me to learn that he owns his own antique store already.  It was given to him by his grandfather.  "It's closed for the season," he told me, "and that's why I'm doing this for the winter." 

I asked him, of course, if he had any old typewriters in his inventory.  He assured me yes, a Royal, at least, and a Hermes Rocket with the original case and instruction manual.  A Selectric I as well, which he knowledgeably described as "the famous electric typewriter from IBM with the ball."  I was tempted by the Hermes, of course, and told him so, but cautioned that I collect antique typewriters and have too many already.

"I know what you mean," he said, "I collect them too."

The fact that this strange affectation has struck three individuals in the same workplace must point more to some great yearning in the human spirit than to coincidence.  We long for the simple, established, and effective, even as the marketplace tells us why we need the new, the novel, the upgraded.  (The marketplace tells us this because it needs to, not because it wants us to be happy or healthy.) 

Three employees in the building is not many, perhaps, but it's more than I would expect, and it shows there may be even more unexpected anachronisms among us.


  1. Hello,

    It is good to hear of your attraction to manual typewriters. You are certainly not alone, as you have begun to realize.

    I have been collecting 19th century typewriters for twenty years now and just love these incredible machines.

    There is a remarkable collective experience that we have towards typing and a strong nostalgia for the typewriter, as a physical and emotional symbol of writing. It is therefore not surprising that these early typewriters resonate with us today.

    Please check out my collection at,
    You will like what you see.

    Martin Howard

  2. Martin - Thanks for stopping by. I'm honored! In fact I have spent some time perusing your site already and the scope of your collection and the care in presenting it are remarkable. Thank you for sharing it with us enthusiasts.

    My own collection is strictly twentieth century and is limited by the modest size of my abode and the thickness of my wallet. I tend to use most of them in pretty regular rotation, though, and the majority of the posts that I share begin their lives as typewritten drafts. (I used to feel bad about wasting the paper until I discovered the trick of re-purposing grocery bags.)

  3. Winston,

    I am pleased to hear that you already know about my antique typewriter website and that you like what you see. It always feels good when others enjoy my collection and passion.

    Twentieth century typewriters are a rich field to collect from as well, with many beautifully designed machines.

    You are certainly versatile, "Re-purposing grocery bags", I like that.

    It is my pleasure to meet you.

    Martin Howard