Requiem for the Typewriter

Penman for Monday, July 11, 2011

BEFORE I go to the main subject of this week’s piece, may I please ask the people at the Office of the Presidential Spokesperson (it’s hard to tell these days who that person really is, but I’m guessing or hoping that I have some friends in that office) to stop spamming my mailboxes with their press releases and “good news” bulletins? Each one of those PDF messages is about 5 megabytes, or about a hundred times as large as this column.

In my UP mailbox alone—for which I, like all Dilimanians, have a measly 20 megabytes of total disk space to use—I get as many as five OPS messages in one day, which makes sure that nothing else gets in. In other words, my address is now nothing more than a trash bin for Palace junk. Any kind of anti-spam filtering I do gets foiled by some OPS algorithm that automatically morphs, say, spokesperson.govph12 into spokesperson.govph13, ad nauseam. And nauseam is exactly what I feel, guys—I like your boss, but invading and overwhelming citizen’s mailboxes this way isn’t going to make him any cuddlier. So, please, OPS—stop the spam!

FROM THE Atlantic Magazine’s April 25 edition comes this sad bit of news—that, along with Kodachrome and other staples of the 20th century, the typewriter will no longer be produced, with the recent shutdown of the last typewriter factory in the world, in India.

Quoting the Daily Mail, the Atlantic reported that a company called Godrej and Boyce still produced up to 12,000 typewriters a year in India until 2009, serving the courts, the military, and other government offices. That inventory went down to 200 machines at closing time—the lowest point for a company that had been around for six decades, from the time when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called the typewriter a “symbol of India's emerging independence and industrialization”; up until the early 1990s, Godrej and Boyce were still selling 50,000 units a year.

The culprit, of course, was the personal computer and “word processing,” a phrase that I remember hearing for the first time in the 1980s and which I found rather strange until I ventured into WordPerfect and then Microsoft Word. Up until then, I still wrote most of my stories and plays in longhand—vigorously striking out long passages here and scribbling cryptic marginal notes there—before moving the text over and “finalizing” the manuscript with a typewriter. The typewriter gave the work a polished, formal, impersonal look that was supposed to be more objective and more believable than one’s own penmanship.

Among other writers, T. S. Eliot was fascinated by the typewriter and was acutely conscious of its effect on his work. In a letter much-quoted on the Internet, he told fellow poet Conrad Aiken in 1916 that “Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon. Short, staccato, like modern French prose. The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.”

Speaking of the Internet, several sites like provide a list of famous writers and the typewriters they used—Hemingway and his Royal Quiet de Luxe, Steinbeck and his Hermes Baby, Updike and his Olivetti MP1, Orwell and his Remington Home Portable, among others.

There’s a whole cottage industry to be spun around writers and their tools—call it the fetishization of writing—encouraged by the appealing notion that if you use what they use (and maybe drink what they drink), you can write as well as Hemingway et al. Never mind the fact, of course, that for a century, masses of clerks and secretaries used Coronas, Underwoods, Olympias, and Remingtons without any one of them becoming an Eliot or a Flannery O’Connor. (O’Connor’s typewriter still sits on her desk at her farm in Georgia. Brad Gooch has a wonderful anecdote about O’Connor sitting at that typewriter for three hours a day; weakened by lupus, she reduced those three hours to one, and she would tell a friend that “I et up that one hour like it was filet mignon.”)

I’ve told a story or two about my love affair with the typewriter before (see Penman for November 16, 2009, where I rhapsodized over the Corona 3 folding portable typewriter that I dragged home to Manila with me from an antique mall in San Francisco). Until around 1988, the typewriter was my best friend; all my early stories, plays, and screenplays had been written on one. When I went off to graduate school in the US in the mid-‘80s, I handcarried an Olympia portable that had been a gift from my mentor Gerry Sicat; my first novel’s first lines flew off its keys.

I suppose I was lucky in a way to have been part of a generation that still used typewriters well into adulthood, and for whom the clackety-clack of the busy keyboard would become so hypnotic that, even when personal computers held dominion over our desks, we still looked for and employed software that mimicked the sound of the keys, and used a font called “American Typewriter” to pretend that little had changed.

To be honest, however, it wasn’t always love. On a bad day, the typewriter could be the writer’s worst enemy—keys went limp, ribbons ran dry, carriages got stuck, paper got scrunched on the platen (that’s the large “rolling pin” in the middle of the thing). Even when it was you who made the mistake—like mistyping the last line on a long page with five carbon copies underneath—you cursed the machine. More likely than not, you were going to let that mistake stay, hoping no one would look too closely. And what about moving that paragraph on Page 16 to Page 2, where it more logically belonged? Forget about it.

This leads me to conclude that when we lament the passing of the typewriter, we’re bemoaning the loss of a “simple” past that was truly much more complicated and troublesome than we now like to imagine.

SPEAKING OF antiquated writing instruments, let me just note that our pen club, the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, celebrated its third anniversary last Saturday. It's hard to believe that from an impromptu gathering of about a dozen people in my front yard back in July 2008—most of whom thought they were all alone in this inky madness—FPN-P has grown into a Yahoogroup with over 160 members online, about 40 of whom I’d call diehard fountain pen, paper, and ink addicts.

I’d like to thank our members and our sponsors (yes, can you believe it, we actually have corporate friends!), particularly Charlene Ngo of Times Trading and Marian Ong of Scribe Writing Essentials, for helping out with the celebration. Charlene took the opportunity to remind everyone that the new, gorgeous aquamarine Lamy Safari is now available at the Lamy stalls in National Bookstore Glorietta5, Greenbelt, Rockwell, Shangrila, Trinoma, Quezon Ave, North Edsa, Filinvest, Megamall and Scribe Writing Essentials. It comes with medium nibs, but you can get a broad nib as an extra purchase. Marian, on the other hand, was happy to share the vibrant colors of the new Pelikan Edelstein inks, which you can check out at Scribe’s shop in Eastwood City—and what about a Pelikan M215 pen to go with the ink?

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