I recently re-read Paul Auster’s 2002 essay “The Story of My Typewriter,” which is about both his old Olympia portable typewriter and his now decades-long refusal to switch from that machine to any of the new writing technology that’s sprung up in the fifty years since he bought that Olympia from an old college friend.
In the essay, Auster strikes the pose of a genial curmudgeon, somebody who knows how odd his behavior looks in the 21st century but who’ll muster at least some token efforts to defend himself if he’s pressed on the topic (or if somebody dangles a writing-fee in front of his nose and other topics just aren’t coming). Of course he takes advantage of the traditional first of these defenses: his own Luddite failures with all new technology.
“There is no point in talking about computers and word processors,” he writes. “Early on, I was tempted to buy one of those marvels for myself, but too many friends told me horror stories about pushing the wrong button and wiping out a day’s work – or a month’s work – and I heard one too many warnings about sudden power failures that could erase an entire manuscript in less than half a second.”
“I have never been good with machines,” he continues, “and I knew that if there was a wrong button to be pushed, I would eventually push it.”
We can nod in sympathy, but the reflex is as outdated as the defense. Tablets and laptop computers compulsively duplicate things nowadays, and services like Google Docs and Dropbox proliferate. With only very rare exceptions (every conspicuously-mustachioed pretentious young Brooklyn writer seems to have one, but predictably, they’re all lying), computers don’t just up and delete whole manuscripts anymore and haven’t for years. I don’t have the technical know-how to make my MacBook completely delete a file and all its duplicates; I’d need to take a tutorial to do what Auster claims to be afraid of doing accidentally.
The Luddite defense is old because it’s always worked well at its primary purpose: to change the subject. Long before Auster used this defense about computers, the poet Auden was using it about typewriters, complaining about how rude and impersonal, how detrimental it felt to work on a typewriter, and long before that, Max Beerbohm was solemnly intoning, “I have never had the knack for typewriters.” Probably some medieval monk made similar comments about switching from vellum to parchment.
It’s not that I haven’t felt the same thing in my own life, I have. For decades, I did all my writing on a Royal manual typewriter, a 1939 “Quiet de Luxe” that had belonged to my father. That old thing weighed twenty pounds and could be locked into its carrying case, and I took it everywhere I expected to get any writing done: my hosts grew accustomed to the sight of me clearing off a stool and setting up my typewriter, my small stack of clean typing paper, and whatever book I was reviewing at the moment.
I’m no more intrinsically comfortable with technology than Auster claims to be, but I came to know that old Royal like it was an extension of my own anatomy. I knew every part of it, could take it to pieces and re-assemble it at need, understood what each separate component did. And more importantly, I could forget all that and just work through the machine, achieving a rhythm that I associated for decades with the act of writing itself.
Not for me the drafts in longhand on yellow legal pads, the first-draft process by which all my writer friends at the time swore with religious fidelity. I’d type my first draft on the Royal, pounding away with the kind of satisfyingly visceral force that will quickly break a modern laptop. Only when that first draft, marred with typos and loaded with invective no Books section editor would ever allow into print (but oh, such fun to write), was finished would I feed some carbon paper into the machine and start the slower, more careful process of typing the finished copy I’d then mail away or walk to the newsroom.
Like Auster, I worked that way for decades, always noticing the creep of new technology all around me. Electric typewriters I entirely avoided throughout their heyday – they always struck me as too jumpy, too prone to take the hammer-blows of my typing fingers and turn them into gibberish.
But when electronic writing came along, I couldn’t help but see its advantages. Even on my primitive Alphasmart and Brother word processors, even with what seemed at the time to be mystifying tech intricacies, and yes, even with whole manuscripts suddenly disappearing at a stroke of the wrong key, those advantages were clear: here was a kind of text where typos were easily, cleanly fixed! Here was a text held in a weird kind of quantum superposition, somewhere between script and print, until I decided it was printable! And, a bit later on, here was copy I could send instantaneously to my editor, with no need for post offices or trips to the post office.
Unlike Auster, in other words, I eventually gave up using my old manual typewriter. It just didn’t make any sense anymore, when a laptop computer and a working Internet connection made things a thousand times more convenient for me and my editors.
But even though I’ll never use it again, I couldn’t bear to part with that old Royal. It sits in its carrying case on a low shelf, never dusted or oiled anymore, never fed any fresh new ribbons. I think of it as a peaceful retirement, mainly because it would be too sad to think of it as anything else.
Steve Donoghue is a book reviewer and editor living in Boston (with his inquisitive little Schnauzer Frieda). His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Kirkus Reviews, and he writes regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, the National, and the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. He is a proud Weathersfield Proctor Library patron.