Reverting to type: what is the new allure of the typewriter?
Opinion: ‘Inspired by Tom Hanks’s typewriter app, I’m dreaming of an app to transform a washing machine into a portable washboard’
‘My trendspotting youngest child spent €25 of her First Communion money on a secondhand Underwood 315 that tips the scale at more than five kilo, which is, coincidentally, the heaviest weight my shoulders can lift at the gym.’
Oh, c’mon. Stop all this nonsense. Starting with you, Tom Hanks. Hanks, the Oscar-winning actor, has sprinkled his celebrity stardust on a bizarre notion that’s been swirling through the ether: the typewriter is now class. Sharp. Awesome.
Yes, the typewriter. That obsolete lump of inky metal – so hefty that if you summoned big Arnold to heave it out a window, you’d brain a person below—is now a status symbol.
Likewise the oxymoronic “portable” typewriter, the 1980s answer to the laptop. My trendspotting youngest child spent €25 of her First Communion money on a secondhand Underwood 315 that tips the scale at more than five kilo, which is, coincidentally, the heaviest weight my shoulders can lift at the gym. That’s both shoulders, together, at the same time.
Portable? I’ll tell you what’s portable. A coffee in a cardboard cup with a plastic lid is portable. Anything that builds muscle mass is not. And yet it appears that the typewriter, disregarded under its dust jacket for at least a quarter-century, is having a come-hither moment.
Tom Hanks is less a fan, more a missionary. Most enthusiasts would be content with lovingly fingering their private collection of some 200 typewriters. Not Hanks. On August 14th he launched an app called Hanx Writer, which turns an iPad into a quasi-typewriter. Hanks calls it “my little gift to the future luddite hipsters of the world”.
DreamingInspired, I’m dreaming of an app to transform a washing machine into a portable washboard. Any takers?
I’m resigned to being non-cool, having long failed to qualify as Coolest Mum in the World as judged by my own daughter. (That title went to her school principal.) So I voiced my doubts as the sprog handed over the dosh for her “new” portable in a secondhand shop. The shopkeeper was dubious, glancing at me for permission before she accepted the cash.
But once the child was home, rolling in sheet after sheet of paper to thump out favourite recipes, her nose for style was confirmed by the envious cooing of her siblings’ teenage mates, both girls and lads. The typewriter later received the ultimate endorsement: a thumbs-up from her hippest cousin, a drama student no less.
Perhaps the coolest person I’ve ever met, my former poetry professor Dean Young (now Texas poet laureate), has always remained faithful to his 1955 Remington Quiet-Riter.
Even civil servants, are, er, bang on trend. A German parliamentary committee set up to investigate internet surveillance in Germany by the National Security Agency, striving to protect its own sensitive documents, recently considered reverting to mechanical typewriters.
Last year one of Russia’s security agencies, the Federal Protective Service, ordered 20 typewriters. In short, these days the typewriter’s allure is blinding, not only to Hollywoodites, poets, college kids, but to unsmiling bureaucrats as well.
Even so, I don’t get it.
I used typewriters while a student and cub reporter. As an economy measure strongly discouraged by manufacturers, I typed on the same ribbon again and again. It was seldom inky enough to produce easily read words. Copies were made by fiddling about with carbon paper, a process sure to stain my Annie Hall tie and waistcoat. Whenever I worked up some speed, the keys would jam. But the typewriter’s worst flaw was that all mistakes were permanent, despite my optimistic attempts to sneak typos past my boss by xxx’ing over them. (I failed, every time.)
So why this spasm of nostalgia for a machine that’s awkward and inefficient? The drama student tried to explain: “It’s something about the sound.”
Funnily enough, the “improvements” provided by Hanks’s Hanx Writer include a clacking sound as you tap out a document. Sceptic though I am, I have to admit that the rattle and clang of my daughter’s typing is oddly comforting.
For many people, large chunks of their lives are now virtual. Yet we remain physical beings. Our bodies and minds are adapted to a three- dimensional world, but so much time is spent in a two-dimensional world – working, playing and socialising on-screen.
ComputerI have thousands of photos stored in smart cards and on my computer, but everyone prefers to browse through the boxes of snaps that pre-date digital cameras. Of my old college papers, the only ones I can read are the ones I preserved the old-fashioned way: on paper. The ones saved electronically are lost forever in obsolete computer code. Is the typewriter’s comeback a sign that, after decades of digitising everything, some people want to go back to experiencing the world through their senses? Even the generation that can’t imagine life without the internet?
This was driven home when my oldest child, techie to the core, received his offer of a college place by email and accepted online. Even so, he wanted that official letter on an actual piece of paper through the post. If you can hold it, it’s real.
Mary Feely is a freelance writer, marytfeely@ eircom. net