Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Category: Typewriters (page 1 of 2)

1946 Olympia typewriter vs. 2012 iPad – who ya got?

Matt Thomas, via Submitted For Your Perusal, spotlights an interesting contrast between two New York Times stories in the same week.

Exhibit #1, from a brief feature on Danielle Steel:

After all these years, Steel continues to use the same 1946 Olympia typewriter she bought used when working on her first book. “I am utterly, totally and faithfully in love with my typewriter,” she says. “I think I paid $20 for it. Excellent investment! And by now, we’re old friends.”

Exhibit #2, from a John Herrman’s essay What I Learned from Watching My iPad’s Slow Death:

Above all, my old iPad has revealed itself as a cursed object of a modern sort. It wears out without wearing. It breaks down without breaking. And it will be left for dead before it dies.

A machine that’s over 70 years old (!) is still performing exactly as it did the year after World War II ended, and another machine that’s not even 7 years old is now a digital dotard. An iPad of course can do far more things than a typewriter. But if it can only do those things for the length of two presidential terms, tops, is it truly worth the investment?

My 1970 Hermes 3000 originally sold for $129.50, according to the sticker still on its body. That’s about $845 in 2017 dollars, which would get you an iPad Pro or basic laptop today. I bought it last year for $30 at an antique store. It’s in seemingly mint condition all these years later, and I can’t wait to see what words it will produce—from me and any future owners. If the iPad’s “slow death” takes place after only a few years, the death of this Hermes—perish the thought—will be downright glacial.

Yet what Herrman concludes about a tablet is also true of a typewriter: “It will still be a wonder of industrial design and a technological marvel, right up until the moment it is destroyed for scrap.”

Which machine’s scraps, however, can actually be turned into something beautiful? Advantage typewriters.

At the corner of 84 Charing Cross Road and Typewriter Street

A stately British bookseller and an American writer exchange letters across the pond? Sounds like a cozy English romance novel to me. Turns out 84, Charing Cross Road is neither a novel nor a romance, but a collection of actual letters from over 20 years of correspondence, and it’s delightful.

Frank Doel, one of the booksellers at the rare book store at the titular address in London, is the straight man in this epistolary relationship. This allows Helene Hanff, a Brooklyn screenwriter and lover of British literature, to sparkle with personality. You get a pretty good sense of what Hanff was like right away. It doesn’t take long for her to playfully badger Doel, a man she’d never met, about a book she requested:

Frank Doel, what are you DOING over there, you are not doing ANYthing, you are just sitting AROUND. .. Well, don’t just sit there! Go find it! i swear i dont know how that shop keeps going.

And:

what do you do with yourself all day, sit in the back of the store and read? why don’t you try selling a book to somebody?

— MISS Hanff to you. (I’m helene only to my FRIENDS)

Their letters also place them in the specific historical moment of postwar England where rationing made basics like meat and jam luxuries:

I send you greetings from America—faithless friend that she is, pouring millions into rebuilding Japan and Germany while letting England starve. Some day, God willing, I’ll get over there and apologize personally for my country’s sins (and by the time i come home my country will certainly have to apologize for mine).

She’s also clearly a bibliophile. When the bookstore employees send her a book and a note with their signatures as a Christmas gift, she admonishes them for writing the note on a separate card rather than in the book itself:

I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.

And yet, she’s not precious about them:

My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVER read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.

I watched the 1987 movie version right after reading the book. It includes pretty much every word from the original letters, so reading the book will give you all you need. Then again, you’d miss out on some solid typewriter action, as seen above and here, with Hanff played by Anne Bancroft:

Anthony Hopkins, who plays Frank Doel, also gets in on the action with his Underwood:

There’s also the real Helene:

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:

uncommon-type-olympia

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

uncommon-type-olympia.jpg

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.”

 

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