Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Typewriters (page 1 of 2)

Tom Hanks Goes Postal

Arriving home after a long weekend in Asheville, I opened our mailbox and saw a letter addressed to me from Playtone, Tom Hanks’ company. Oh shit, I said out loud. I’d typed and sent him a short letter a few weeks ago about my photo of his book and to thank him for being a great ambassador for typewriters. I didn’t expect to get anything back, but got something anyway:

On the left is the letter from Hanks and on the right is a reproduction of his foreword “Eleven Reasons to Use A Typewriter” from the new book Typewriters: Iconic Machines from the Golden Age of Mechanical Writing, which makes a great cheeky companion to the Typewriter Manifesto.

I think I’ve now peaked as a typist.

 

Life, light, and typing at the bliss station

This is the view of my typing station. It is currently manned by my Smith-Corona Electra, flanked by Life from a succulent and Light from an owl lamp, buttressed by a Jackalope typewriter pad I highly recommend, and supported by a typing desk I inherited from my typist grandmother, and it is quickly becoming my bliss station.

Underwood you like this one?

The good thing about being known as “a typewriter guy” is the same as the bad thing: people bring you typewriters to buy. After talking with some coworkers about California Typewriter, The Typewriter Revolution, and other typewriterana, one said her parents had some in their attic and she’d see if she could find them. The next week she brought in this 1938 Underwood Portable 4-bank:

She said she’d gotten it at an antique store years ago because it looked cool (she was right) but hadn’t used it since.  It’s missing its right margin stop, rubber feet, and ribbon spool covers, but besides that and a little rust on the typebars it types just fine.

Still, with my space for typewriters at a premium, I’m gonna resell it. If the buyer can locate an extra margin stop and a new ribbon they’ll be set with a nice machine.

Tom Hanks, Olympia, and Me

I had the pleasure of seeing a photo of mine get the Ken Burns treatment on CBS Sunday Morning’s story this weekend about Tom Hanks, his new book, and his love of typewriters:

One of my colleagues got an advance copy of Hanks’ book at a library conference back in June specifically because she knew I’d love it—and I did, enough to write my first typecast review. For the accompanying image I thought pairing the book’s beautiful blue cover with my Olympia SM7 (acquired at the splendid Retro-Revolution in Madison, WI) of almost the same shade made sense and looked great:

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Since I posted it far enough ahead of the book’s publication date, the photo (along with the images of my typewritten review) had time to climb up the ranks of Google Images under searches for “Uncommon Type”, which no doubt is how the CBS producer found it.

I knew Hanks’ book would give typewriters A Moment; I didn’t realize I’d be part of it! But I am happy to be. The book is out Tuesday: go get it and then get a typewriter of your own.

The People’s Machine: On ‘California Typewriter’

As was the case with Tom Hanks’s new typewriter-inspired short story collection, I was the easiest mark in the world for the new Doug Nichol documentary California Typewriter, which profiles the titular typewriter repair shop in Berkeley and the wider place of the typewriter in modern culture.

Though I’ve been anticipating the film for a while, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It turned out to be partially an adaptation of Richard Polt’s seminal The Typewriter Revolution and partially a meditation by figures famous and otherwise on the machine’s enduring value in the midst of its obsolescence. All together a collection of vignettes revolving around their common theme, the film works as a primer for the uninitiated as well as an adoring homage for the converted.

There are three main stories weaving throughout the film: the collector Martin Howard on a pilgrimage to snag an original 19th-century Sholes and Glidden, the California Typewriter shop struggling to survive in a defunct industry, and the artist Jeremy Mayer reusing parts from decommissioned typers to create some pretty incredible sculptures:

Together they neatly represent the past, present, and future of typewriters, but the shop narrative is the lynchpin. Owned by an African-American family for over 35 years, it’s now the most prominent representative of a dying breed. Even with the recent resurgence of interest, the decades of experience repairman Ken Alexander and his cohort have is a finite supply. And without high-quality typewriters being manufactured, that supply will only dwindle from here.

Still, notable typists have their reasons for sticking with typewriters. Tom Hanks has over 200 of them, many of which he gives away. (He names his favorites, two of which I own and share his opinion on.) David McCullough has been using the same hulking Royal Standard for over 50 years now in his drool-worthy writing cabin. (Against the conventional wisdom of modern gadgets, he says, “I don’t want to faster. I want to go slower.”) John Mayer got one in a bid for more permanence with his work and started writing lyrics with it. The late great Sam Shepard waxes eloquent about his Hermes 3000 and speaks to the benefits of its rituals, like how rolling in a new page is akin to saddling a horse for a job or journey.

The film is beautifully shot and edited by Nichol, whose eye as a commercial and music video cinematographer finds lots of lovingly framed images and scenes. A junkyard pile of cars that mirror the piles of discarded typers in Mayer’s studio. A reading of the Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto contrasted with footage of Apple fanatics lining up for the latest iDevice. But Nichol’s best decision was picking a subject that is already damn photogenic.

One collector mentions the typewriter subculture is almost exclusively men. Though technically inaccurate (for starters, typewriter poet-for-hire Silvi Alcivar is featured in the film, and there are the good people of Poems While You Wait) the film does insinuate a majority male enterprise given the people represented. This is a shame because many women are involved in the online community and at type-ins; and more broadly, the beautiful thing about the Revolution is that it’s a fully inclusive movement.

Typewriters are for everyone. Anyone can take up typing and for so many purposes, free from abstruse Terms & Conditions and free from the surveillance and proprietary influence that are built into digital technology. It’s a machine that is subservient to human will and not the other way around, whose sole function is to imprint letters on paper at the creative direction of the user.

In that way the typewriter truly is the People’s Machine. It’s your birthright, and it’s waiting for you. All you need is paper and ink—both of which are cheap and abundant—and desire to get started.

‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks – a typecast review

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It's fitting that my very first typecast is a review of "Uncommon Type: Some Stories", a book of short stories by Tom Hanks (out October 2017), written on my Olympia SM7 of a similar color. I don't read many short story collections, but when I heard the unofficial Dean of Typewriter Enthusiasts was writing a book inspired by typewriters, how could I not read it? Little did I know that a librarian colleague (h/t Megan) would snag an advance copy at a library conference for me, allowing me an early look. And whaddaya know: I liked it! But I *would* say that, right? "Of course the typewriter and Tom Hanks fan would like it!" Since I knew I was biased, I tried to read the book as if I'd picked it up at random without knowing its very famous author. And I liked it even then, though there are clues throughout that point to Hanks being the author. There are stories about World War II, the Apollo missions, and the life of a famous actor during a whirlwind press junket, no doubt influenced by Hanks' well-known interests and career. The bulk of the writing, though, is characteristic of simply a good writer, famous or otherwise. The highlight might be "Christmas Eve 1953", which alternates between a sweetly rendered scene of a World War II vet at home with his family and his vivid flashbacks to the Battle of the Bulge. I also really enjoyed "The Past is Important to Us", set in the near-future when time travel is possible but only to a specific time and place for 22 hours at a time. This brings a billionaire to the 1939 New York World's Fair repeatedly to track down an enchanting mystery woman. Has the makings of a great short film. Several stories feature the same friend group but with a different focus in each: "Three Exhausting Weeks" follows a listless man who gets more than he bargained for when he starts dating his type-A friend; "Alan Bean Plus Four" (so-named for the fourth person to walk on the moon) sends the gang on a fantastical, slapdash trip around the Moon; and "Steve Wong is Perfect" has them cheering on a reluctant bowling prodigy. Each story leads off with a picture of the typewriter mentioned in the story, be it a Hammond Type-o-Matic, Groma Kolibri, or Selectric. Most of them are used or mentioned only in passing (for a story dedicated exclusively to typewriters, typeheads can skip to the delightful "These Are the Meditations of My Heart", which includes a paean to the Hermes 2000), so people who didn't come to the book for the typewriters (perish the thought!) will still enjoy a fairly diverse assemblage of stories and characters. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Hanks exhibits in his writing an actor's keen sense of relationships and scenic flow. It *was* surprising that this wasn't the case for dialogue, which is often over-written. But I ain't mad. I'd recommend this not only as a typewriter fan but as a librarian, to readers in search of small-dose stories that trigger a smile as often as a twinge of longing. May this book recruit ever more people into the glorious Typewriter Revolution!uncommon-type2uncommon-type3uncommon-type4uncommon-type5uncommon-type6

See more typewriter-related posts here

One Year in the Revolution

Tom Hanks, the most famous typewriter enthusiast in the world, couldn’t be a better ambassador for the field. Whether in a podcast or film or newspaper, he tells the Good News with his trademark charming gravitas. Though I’m sure longtime collectors wince at the thought of prices rising with such high-profile boosterism, it’s ultimately good for people and for typewriters—if only to save some from key-choppers or the dumpster.

A little over a year ago was when I first read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution, which set me off into this new world. I’m typing this draft on a Smith Corona Electra 12, the first typewriter I bought after enlisting in The Revolution. ($5 at Goodwill, still the lowest I’ve had to pay.) The Electra set me off into a typewriter mania, and my collection quickly burgeoned. Every antique mall and thrift shop was a potential holder of The Next One. I joined the Antique Typewriter Collectors Facebook group, read up on repair and maintenance, enlisted loved ones in searching for typewriters, annoyed friends and coworkers talking about my new hobby, and even took the plunge on an eBay purchase.

But once I hit my apartment’s MTC (Maximum Typewriter Capacity), I knew I had to temper my passions and come to balance. Once I realized I didn’t have to buy every decent typewriter I saw—that I had developed discernment (and a price limit) for what I really wanted—the ardor subsided and I’ve been able to appreciate what I have, while always keeping an eye open for a deal. All throughout, my wife has remained supportive (especially after I got her a pretty yellow Kmart 100), and continues to indulge me every time I describe my latest repair success or grumble about a particularly vexing dysfunction.

I wasn’t the tinkering kind of kid. I liked Legos and building forts, but lacked the mind for creative engineering that I saw in others. Even today I’m not a car guy and can only do basic home repairs. But I’ve really enjoyed learning typewriters. I’ve gradually gained the confidence to dig around inside them and learn how their innards work. Unlike computers, they are complicated but still able to be discerned. Though stunning works of art, they aren’t meant to sit in glass like an heirloom; they demand to be used and figured out.

When I casually grabbed The Typewriter Revolution off the library shelf, I couldn’t have guessed it would lead me into a new world of discovery and joy I enter every time I uncase a typewriter and roll some paper around the platen. But after a year of that, I’m still ready for more.

Towards Integrity

Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows, re: Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad”: “The old world, Hawthorne seemed to argue, was arduous, but it knew where it was going, and it went the slow sure way. Machines made life easier, faster, more predictable, but they led away from an integrity that people missed from the beginning.”

 

Typewriters in The Simpsons

Frinkiac, a searchable archive of seventeen seasons worth of Simpsons screengrabs, ought to be in the Internet Hall of Fame. After using it to look up some old favorites, I searched for anything typewriter-related, and here’s what came up:

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And of course Wiggam with his invisible typewriter:

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Track Changes

A good argument could be made for several different technologies being the ideal tool for writers. Pen and paper have proved durable and flexible but aren’t easily manipulated. Typewriters provide an attractive single-purpose distraction-free environment but don’t allow for easy duplication. Modern computers are powerful and multi-purpose, but easily distract.

We all are fortunate to live in a time when we can choose between these options. That wasn’t the case until certain benchmarks in history, which Matthew Kirschenbaum explores in his new book Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (which I learned about from the review in The New Republic). I was born in 1987, so I missed the period Kirschenbaum covers here (mostly the 1970s and ’80s), but I distinctly remember Windows 95, floppy disks, and everything going much slower than they do now. I wouldn’t chose to be transported back to the early 80s, when having a home computer required so much more work than it does now. Some people liked that work, and hey, to each’s own. But I’m a late-adopter. Whether it’s a new device, app, or other web service, I’m happy to let the early-adopters suffer through the bugs and relative paucity of features while I wait for things to get smoother and more robust.

The book explores several things I’m moderately interested in — chiefly literature, philosophy of writing, and the technical aspects of early personal computers — so I thought I’d give it a whirl and see what it came to. Since Kirschenbaum goes deep on those things I’m only moderately interested in, I found myself skimming through several passages that someone more invested in the topic might find more worthwhile. Overall, though, I thought it was a nice niche history, with perspective on where we’ve come from as a creative species and how the tools writers specifically use have shaped their work.

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