Category Archives: Writing

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.

No More ‘More’: Against Irregular Superlatives

Who’s ready for a grammatical crusade of pedantic proportions?! Get in on this: It’s time to standardize English comparative and superlative adjectives.

Those are used when you are comparing one or more things. For example, a banana can be big, bigger, or biggest. The -er and -est progression is common and used for most adjectives. The ones that don’t use -er and -est typically use more ___ and most ___, as in more beautiful and most beautiful. But why?

Beautifuller and beautifullest actually have a nice flow and even become accidental portmanteaus, combining beautiful and fullest. Even longer adjectives can work: extraordinarier is quite fun to say, and comfortablest sneaks in the archaic spelling of blessed.

In a previous post, I wanted to write about something that was the next level up from vibrant. The “correct” version would be more vibrant, but is vibranter any worse? (Or badder?) It may look and sound odd, but only because the brain has been trained to expect more vibrant. There’s no reason why vibranter can’t be acceptable, especially in a language as flexible as English.

I’m fully aware that English is a strange and stubbornly idiosyncratic language. I love it for that. (You should see the list of interesting words I keep just for fun.) But it’s also an amenable language, subject to evolution over a long time or by brute force.

So let’s make it happen: no more more, avoid most to the utmost, and let those -ers and -ests fly!

Top Shelf Madness

Almost two years ago I started writing about strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk, in a series I call Refer Madness

My latest one, titled “Finding Angels,” is debuting over at Booklist, as part of the latest issue of “Top Shelf Reference” newsletter. This latest one is about a patron who came in looking for a book about angels, but actually desired something else. 

I’ll continue Refer Madness here, but hope to keep them going in Top Shelf semi-regularly. Thanks to Rebecca at Booklist for the opportunity! 

The Typewriter: A Graphic History

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Janine Vongool’s The Typewriter: A Graphic History of the Beloved Machine is a gorgeous compendium of ads, photographs, and other artwork depicting typewriters and related ephemera from their invention in the late 1860s to the 1980s, when personal computers began to supersede their analog ancestors.

In other words: straight-up typewriter porn.

Some interesting tidbits:

The Name

Charles Weller, a clerk who witnessed the early development of the machine, talked years later about how the typewriter got its name: “Typewriter was an unusual name and had a unique sound, and so it was finally adopted, and then for the first time was heard a name, sounding oddly enough at that time, but which has now become so common throughout the civilized world that we wonder that any other name was thought of.” Other names like “writing machine” and “printing machine” didn’t quite fit, and in retrospect were clearly inferior choices to typewriter, which indeed is an unusual but perfectly apt name.

The War

Typewriters were recruited to the World War II effort just as other industries and product were. The Royal ad below: “Uncle Sam wants every typewriter you can spare because the fighting forces need typewriters desperately today. They’re needed to speed up production, the movement of supplies, orders to ships and planes and troops. The typewriter industry can’t supply ’em – we’re busy making ordnance.” Manufacturers implored customers to either sell theirs to the government or maintain them better, as supplies and repairmen would be at a deficit due to war production.

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A Secretary Is Not A Toy

Sex and sexism are common themes throughout the decades of typewriter advertising shown in this book. Early 20th century graphics often depicted the office secretary as the “temptress at work” or an idle daydreamer, with the word typewriter “often used to describe both the machine and its operator.” The ads above make winking reference to these assumptions with the bait-and-switch headline that’s actually just selling carbon copy paper. The ads below promoted using bright red fingernail polish to contrast with the style of the machine; in a brilliant move of synergy, Underwood even made its own “chip-resistant” polish secretaries could sample by writing in on their office stationery.

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Typewriters and Self-Worth

Showing us that some things never change, some mid-century ads promoted typewriters to young people as statements of social standing, self-improvement, and self-worth. One Corona ad from 1921 just comes right out with it: “You probably suspect that we are trying to sell you a Corona. Nothing of the sort. We are just trying to convince you that you need a Corona. That’s different.” Royal really hit the self-improvement theme hard, promising a 38% rise in grades due to all the “exclusives” the 1958 Royal Portable provided.

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While I would have appreciated more contextual information accompanying the artwork, Vangool mostly lets the many images speak for themselves. Overall, it’s a superbly made coffee-table book that fans of typewriters and the graphic arts especially will enjoy.

Typewriter Files: 1959 Royal Futura 800

I don’t remember how long ago this 1959 Royal Futura 800 typewriter came into my possession, but I know it sat in my old room at my parents’ place for about a decade before, in my recent typewriter mania, I eagerly reclaimed it for examination, restoration, and loving use.

As outwardly there wasn’t much wrong with it, the Before shot I took looks quite similar to the After:

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The body is undamaged and mostly quite shiny all the way around. Mechanically it’s sound too, typing smoothly and with no apparent malfunctions. Its insides, however, were filthy: cat hair, dried padding dust, and the detritus of decades had accumulated on its oiled architecture. Initially I was ill-equipped for the thorough clean job it needed, but after a quick trip to Walgreens my supply cache was filled with Q-tips, cotton wiping pads, a compressed air can for spraying out hard-to-reach areas, and a pen light for peering into the innards.

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Pre-cleaning serial number.

Piece by piece I went along and wiped down what I could, making sure not to disturb any of the mechanisms. The very middle section, wedged between the escapement and the carriage, was a tough get. Without taking the whole machine apart — a process I feared that, past a certain point, I wouldn’t be able to recover from — I couldn’t touch every piece that needed cleaning, but with the compressed air can and some swabs I got to damn near everything I could. Since nothing was obstructing the machinations I figured I’d leave good-enough alone.

The most difficult parts to clean were the glue remnants from the padding pieces, on the removable side pieces and inside the ribbon cover (which pops out when you push the red Royal logo in front):

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The aged padding crumbled off at the slightest touch (unfortunately falling into the body), but the hardened glue remained recalcitrant, even after a few rounds of goo remover and scraping. I could have kept at it but wanted to move on, so I just made sure the pieces were otherwise clean.

As this was my first major typewriter clean-up project, I learned a lot. Though each typewriter make and model will present its own challenges, the biggest mistake I made with the Futura will apply to every typewriter I work on. I realized only after it was too late that I didn’t make note of which screws went where. During disassembly I thought “The black ones go here” and “the short silver ones go here”; but a day later, after I’d spent so much time and energy inside the thing, as I was bringing the body pieces together I realized my error. Oh crap, where do these go? Trial and error got me the rest of the way and all systems returned to order eventually, but I was very happy when it finally reconstituted and typed without a hitch.

The low-grade panic I felt did inspire my first lesson: Document. Right after the Futura was restored back to health, I put a bunch of loose leaf paper into a three-ring binder, wrote Royal Futura 800 atop the first page, and took notes on everything I’d done and seen: initial impressions and observations, notable blemishes and potential problem spots, its serial number, and suggestions for further repairs and cleaning. As I’d be moving on to other typewriters, I didn’t want to start mixing up what I did on which machine and which required which maintenance. I’ll do a typeface sample on each of the notes pages, too, so I can compare them at a glance.

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The Futura came with an orange wooden case lined with a golden metal trim, but it was missing its handle, making it a cumbersome carry. Someone in the Typewriter Facebook group mentioned using a belt as a replacement, so I got a thin leather belt (that unfortunately doesn’t match very well, but it was free, so I have that going for me) and wound it around the remaining metal loops. Works great.

Finally, using the Typewriter Database I narrowed down the manufacture date of the machine to 1959, based on its serial number. I then uploaded it as my first gallery on my Typewriter Database page. Still need to add a few more photos and a typeface specimen, but for now I’ll enjoy notching my first typewriter before quickly moving on to the next.

Until next type…

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The Idea Owl approves.

All You Can Do Is Type

I’ve gone a little typewriter mad lately. In addition to my grandma’s IBM Selectric I, I’ve recently acquired a Smith-Corona Classic 12, Royal Futura 800, Rover 5000 Super deLuxe, Smith-Corona Skyriter, and a Smith-Corona Electra 12. All at thrift stores or antique shops and all for $30 or less. They are all fixer-uppers in one way or another, though mostly just need cleaning.

Tonight I banged out a first draft of an upcoming review on the Futura. It was strange. My style of writing with word processors consists of starting from somewhere in the middle of my thoughts and editing as I write. But I can’t do that on a typewriter. All I can do is write and compile my thoughts as they come, and save the editing for the computer. An occasional change of habits is good, I think, for the soul and for the craft.

The Meal

Back in 2007, the Iraq War was experiencing a “surge” courtesy of the U.S. military and I was a college student sitting at a dining hall table, wondering how I could capture the political debate of the day in metaphor through a short film script. Thus, the following piece of trenchant political satire was born. The three characters in it—George, Harry, and John, creatively representing George W. Bush, Harry Reid, and John McCain—I recast as students at a dining hall table stuck in a debate that seemed quite similar to the one occurring at the same time in Washington. I recently found this in my files and just had to let the world see its genius. Get your popcorn out for:

THE MEAL

INT. CAFETERIA – DAY

Three guys are sitting at a table eating lunch. The conversation is pretty heated.

Continue reading

Irregardless Is A Word, But A Bad One

Ta-Nehisi Coates went all TNC the other night on Twitter (which is just plain fun to watch) to address the evergreen “___ isn’t a word” debate, a favorite parlor game of pedantic English majors everywhere. Addressing whether irregardless  should be sanctioned as a real word when regardless was already acceptable, he ventured: “Worst argument is that there should be no words that already mean the same thing as other words. … Get rid of ‘beautiful’ because we already have ‘lovely.’ Lose ‘unattractive’ since we have ‘unappealing.'”

Except that that’s not the issue with irregardless. Irregardless is not a synonym of regardless; it’s a verbal typo of it. It’s most likely an accidental portmanteau of irrespective and regardless, both of which are “real” words. Beautiful is a synonym of lovely, but they each have unique definitions and etymologies and uses. People who say irregardless most likely mean to say regardless but have adopted the aberrational version of it. It would be like someone saying “beautilul” when they meant “beautiful.” If someone wants to give beautilul meaning as something other than a typo or mispronunciation of beautiful, great. I love making up new words. But absent that, beautilul is indeed a word in the strictest sense, but not as an acceptable synonym of beautiful.

This doesn’t mean irregardless isn’t word. As the OED’s Jesse Sheidlower said in an interview with TNC, “of course it’s a word.” It’s a thing said by people, so of course it’s a word. The question in this debate is whether it’s an appropriate word for the circumstances. I share TNC’s distaste of grammar fascists trotting out “That’s not a word” whenever someone deviates from the grade-school grammar line; however, I also share Alan Jacobs’ skepticism (contra Stefan Fatsis at The New Yorker) of the pure, unchecked descriptivist approach some dictionaries take with gate-keeping, or lack thereof. Not everything—word choice included—is always permissible, even in an instant-gratification culture where inconvenience is anathema and your right to be right is sacrosanct.

Some things aren’t and can’t be descriptivist, Jacobs writes:

This is reasonable in part because the relation between world and word is not unidirectional. People don’t use dictionaries only to discover the meanings of words they have encountered elsewhere; sometimes by browsing through dictionaries we discover that there are more things in heaven and earth than were dreamed of in our philosophies.

How beautilul.

The Church of NaNoWriMo

My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed novelist.

I’m in the midst of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which issues a lofty goal for aspiring literary types: write 50,000 words in the span of 30 days, no matter what. Budding scribes of every stripe participate in this movement throughout the month of November, all with the goal of a first draft by December 1. The point is not to make it good, only to make it in time. Quantity over quality. Completion over perfection.

So, in late October, I formulated bullet points for a plot, roughly sketched out some characters and determined a setting that I thought would provide me ample room to flesh out a story over 50,000 words. On November 1, my excitement at starting a new adventure into the fictional unknown quickly devolved into existential gnashing of teeth. After writing for what felt like a long time, I’d only gotten down about 500 words and most of it was filler. Was this what writing a novel was like? I quickly fell behind the prescribed 1,667-words-per-day pace and despaired about my chances for achieving literary glory.

Despite the planning, good intentions and hope I had in my abilities, I failed to live up to the NaNoWriMo creed. But through this experience, I’ve noticed that the movement has, over its 15-year span, become a religious practice of sorts that churchgoers of all kinds would recognize. Like the liturgy of orthodox believers, NaNoWriMo writers commit to daily practice of a writing ritual no matter how tired or rote it seems on any given day. Mirroring Bible studies and church small groups, the “write-ins” that libraries and writing groups sponsor provide a place to foster community, pledge accountability and inspire others along the journey. And above all there exists an ultimate goal, a reason for all the fuss. For NaNoWriMo, it’s 50,000 words of something: a novel, a collection of short stories or maybe the first installment of the next big YA dystopian series. Whatever it is, it won’t be ready for bookstore displays on December 1, but it will be a start.

But what of the faith journey? If Christianity were reduced to a month’s worth of daily quotas to hit, would it still be Christianity? Certainly such dogmatic legalism exists within the faith (within any faith at that), but to me that misses the point. There is indeed a righteous purpose for the sacraments and spiritual practices that infuse a devout life. But in fiction as in faith, I believe the story reigns. Whether through the history of Israel in the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms or the parables of Jesus, Christianity values stories and storytelling for their artistic value and for their utility. The Christian story, which was crafted over a much longer time span than a month, continues in this vein when each of us writes the lessons of Jesus into our own narratives in the form of works of service as well as acts of faith.

My name is Chad Comello and I am a failed Christian. That’s my story thus far and that’s OK. Tomorrow I’ll come back to the table and try again. Though I quickly and easily fail to keep up with the ideal—in writing or in religion—I’m doing something every day to get better. I’ve stopped worrying about how many words I rack up or how many random acts of kindness I perform and instead focus on cherishing the opportunity to write, to create and to do life better than yesterday. Disciples of Jesus, go and do likewise.

Originally published at Think Christian.

The Holy Sanctuary of Public Libraries

As a reference librarian at a suburban public library, I sit at the information desk, waiting to answer patrons’ many different questions. On Friday evenings, the foot traffic slows and a soothing silence descends on my area. Save the soft clattering of the keyboards in the computer lab, it is mercifully quiet. It’s in these moments I realize: I’m in a holy place.

As civil institutions funded mostly by taxes from the people they serve, public libraries are strictly secular. Patrons can use their space and resources for whatever cause, without regard for politics, religion, race or any other category. But, as we know, there’s no such thing as secular. Writing for Think Christian last year, Caryn Rivadeneira made a similar point about the beauty of art museums:

Perhaps it had something to do with the grandeur of the space. Certainly it had something to do with being surrounded by centuries’ worth of wondrous examples of image-bearing creativity. Definitively it had to do with being drawn into works that speak a mystical language, that communicate through brush-strokes or film or clay and yet speak from the artist’s heart to the viewer’s.

When I look around the library on quiet Friday nights, I see the place itself as holy. I see a cathedral of books, each one comprising a distinct identity and yet functioning as one small part of the larger body. I became much more aware of the library as a place after reading Robert Dawson’s The Public Library: An American Commons, a photographic essay documenting public library buildings all over America. The libraries in Dawson’s photographs range from a one-room wooden structure built by former slaves in California to the imposing, Romanesque Revival-style Carnegie Library in Pennsylvania to the sleek, futuristic Central Library in Seattle. Whether old or new, deserted or bustling, each of these buildings, like the books they contain, tells a unique story.

Considering the uncertain state of public libraries today, I can’t help but see their challenges running parallel with those of the American church. Both institutions, rooted in history but now confronted with modernity, are struggling to navigate the tenuous space between orthodoxy and innovation. They hear the same critical buzzwords thrown at them: outdated, unnecessary, old-fashioned, dull. They are debating internally how to attract young people and the unconverted, how to revitalize their diminishing influence amidst cultural and digital revolutions and how to make their missions feel essential in a world abounding with choices.

But above all, I see them both as sanctuaries—havens for world-weary patrons and all their baggage. I’m sure a pastor could sympathize with the variety of interpersonal issues public librarians navigate gracefully every day. I’ve had people approach me looking for books about divorce, STDs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and for ways to track down someone who wronged them. But I’ve also retrieved books on weddings, suggested new reads to eager patrons and even helped a woman find an image of, in her words, a “whimsical walrus.” Many people, some with mental disabilities, simply want to talk. This often requires an abundance of patience; when there are a dozen other things you could be doing, choosing to serve a patron in need suddenly becomes the most challenging one. But extending grace on the frontlines of humanity, whether in the pews or in the stacks, is a challenge worth taking.

As a librarian and a believer, I see the struggles of libraries and churches up close. I also see their beauty—as institutions attempting to serve the greater good; as places of study, searching and refuge; and as living archives of our shared cultural experiences. These places can transform us if we let them. All we have to do is walk through their doors and take a look around.

Originally posted at Think Christian.