Looking Back to an Old Typewriter

What difference might a typewriter make on one’s writing style; might it even affect one’s thinking itself? We are what we write, and how we write is shaped by the device on which we write. Consider Nicholas Carr’s reflections on Nietzsche’s use of a primitive typewriter.

Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise. His vision was failing, and keeping his eyes focused on a page had become exhausting and painful, often bringing on crushing headaches. He had been forced to curtail his writing, and he feared that he would soon have to give it up. The typewriter rescued him, at least for a time. Once he had mastered touch-typing, he was able to write with his eyes closed, using only the tips of his fingers. Words could once again flow from his mind to the page.

But the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”

“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.” (The Atlantic, July/August 2008).

            Selectric is the name of an IBM electronic typewriter that awkwardly sits on a table in what should be the dining room. When I type, I hear the sounds of inscription. I see the words appear in front of me on a real sheet of paper. The touch is lighter than on a manual typewriter, but it is percussive. It pounds the letters into place and moves on. It is like playing drums and writing at the same time, although there is no steady beat. Maybe it is more like avant-garde drumming.

Machines like this are not easily portable. They are connected to nothing outside of their power cord. They are not made anymore, like the Hammond B-3 organ. Every major jazz organist plays a B-3. How many writers use an electric typewriter? Some still use manual models, which I learned from the delightful film, “California Typewriter.”

The Selectric was famous for being a dependable and correctible typewriter. A little key allowed you to backspace to a mistake and then strike the errant letter, which was (somewhat) erased. Then you typed the proper letter. Bad typists like me appreciated that.

Unmasking the New Age (1986), my first book, was half written on an early computer and half written on a Selectric that someone had rented for me. I wrote several other articles and reviews on the Selectric as well. But after getting my now extinct Kay-pro, the great beast was forgotten and all was written on computer—until I spotted a garage sale in my neighborhood. That is when the Selectric came back into my life.

Kaiser-Permanente will likely be stunned when they receive a typewritten letter from me protesting their decision not to cover a medical test. But mostly, I sidle up to the hulking black box to write letters to friends. So far, no recipients have complained. Some have applauded. None have typewritten back.

The Selectric selects the way I write. Corrections are not easily made. So, I think more before I write. Deleting a whole sentence is not easily done. I have not returned to the world of white out, a substance with which I never made piece. I think some of it from decades ago is still under my finger nail. If I must delete a lot, I strike through with dashes. That is ugly, but gritty. Tom Hanks types this way on his manuals; so I can, too. Knowing that I can resort to grittiness frees me from fear of error. Typing forbids you to move text around—something that is second nature to us now. You are committed to a sequence. If I want to return to a topic from several topics ago, I have to bring it up again. This is a little more like a conversation than typing on a computer, where cutting and pasting (to hark back to a literal practice) is simple.

My Selectric also has sentimental value. The muscle memory comes back. I think of typing out my lecture outlines for my class, “The Twilight of Western Thought,” when I worked in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon. I think of short essays I wrote to my fiancé, Becky Merrill, one of which was on the ontology of kissing. That has, tragically, been lost to history (I think).

I won’t be sending publishers any hard copy written on a typewriter. My black beauty does not have spell check. Nor can it insert links. Adding footnotes would be annoying. I remember those dark days. I won’t lug my typewriter into the office and then back home again. It is more of a fixture and part of my house. However, I would gladly have one in my office if could procure another good one at a decent price.

Perhaps I gave hypergraphia—at least a mild case—but I don’t suffer from it. I live it. When a colleague mentioned my productivity amidst the misery of living through my wife’s dementia, I replied, “I write in order to survive.” I write about many topics on various devices. Each device—computer, typewriter, pen and ink—shapes how I write. Perhaps that is worth pondering, since words will last forever and cannot finally be taken back.

 

 

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

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