Ready Player One took my esteem for Spielberg down a notch, but The Post—made after Ready PlayerOne but released before it—has elements of his best work, even if it doesn’t rise above the sum of its parts. Generally it’s standard Spielberg, with old-school liberal and institutionalist views on the press, akin to Lincoln in its reverence for American mythologies. But cinematically it’s much more robust and limber than a lot of his recent stuff, with closely observed moments like the shot of Bob Odenkirk’s reporter character typing at his desk as the Washington Post‘s printing press rumbles to life in a climactic moment. I think the lack of prep time did him good.
Also, I am 99% sure Tom Hanks did this movie because of all the typewriters. Working with Spielberg and Meryl Streep was merely a bonus.
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:
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:
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.
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 Revolutionand 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.
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.
There’s a scene in Saving Private Ryan when Matt Damon’s Pvt. Ryan and Tom Hanks’ Capt. Miller sit and chat, waiting for the impending German offensive to hit their French town. Ryan’s three brothers had recently died and he can’t remember their faces. The Captain tells him to think of a specific context, something they’d shared together. When the Captain thinks of home, he says, “I like of my hammock in the backyard or my wife pruning the rosebushes in a pair of my old work gloves.”
Ryan then tells the story of the brothers’ last night together before the war took them away, his enthusiasm growing as his face brightens with the look of recognition. After he finishes the story, he asks Captain Miller to tell him about his wife and the rosebushes. “No,” the Captain says. “That one I save just for me.”
In this the Age of Oversharing, this is a refreshing if soon-to-be anachronistic sentiment. I’ll admit to feeling the ongoing urge to inform The World via Twitter of funny or interesting things that happen to me during the day, or to display my pithy wit with a topical one-liner. But lately I’ve been compelled by a new urge, similar to that of Tom Hanks’ laconic Captain Miller in this case, which tells me to think twice before sharing whatever it is I want to share with the world.
Perhaps this is due to my being an inherently reserved person, reluctant to simply give away every little thought that enters my brain. Some people, I fully realize, aren’t built this way; they want to share themselves and their lives entirely and get fulfillment out of this. That’s perfectly fine. But I like the idea of keeping some moments – the rosebush prunings of our lives – special, not posted on Twitter or Instagram or even a WordPress blog.
This requires a lot of discipline. Being hyperconnected to social networks makes sharing intentionally easy, so overcoming the desire to post a picture of a sunset scene you’re sharing with a loved one is tough, especially when the desire to share has been engrained and even encouraged by our plugged-in culture. But I think a special moment like that becomes a little less special when every one of your Facebook friends and their mother shares it too.
This notion runs counter to many of my identities. As an amateur techie, I marvel at the capabilities the Web can give ordinary people to express themselves and enhance their lives. As a history buff and librarian/archivist in training, I understand the value of information as the record of history and the zeitgeist of an era. And as a user of Twitter, Instagram, and WordPress, I’ve come to enjoy having easily accessible and usable media to help me share cool photos, links, and thoughts short (on Twitter) and long (on here) whenever and wherever I want.
In spite of all these conflicts of interest, I’m OK with, once in a while, letting moments and images and quotes pass by undocumented and unshared, if only so I can feel in that moment that I got a glance, however fleeting, at something beautiful or inspiring or funny or tragic or all of the above, and that it’s all mine. The memory of that moment may die with me, but hey, that’s life. No matter how high-quality resolution the camera or beautifully eloquent the prose, these second-hand records will never be quite as pure as the real thing, the moments they seek to honor.
So here’s to, once in a while, living in the moment and only in the moment.