Photo via CNET
, courtesy IBM.
You might have noticed tribute
pouring out recently to the IBM Selectric typewriter, which was launched 50 years ago tomorrow. Less fuss is being made over other half-centenarians like Life cereal, George Clooney, Mastering the Art of French Cooking
and the rocket-propelled grenade
— no surprise, given that none of these is a favorite tool of writers.
Writers, I must add, of a certain age — not too old to be pickled in images of Hemingway scribbling on his feet in Paris bars, or of Updike stabbing at the keyboard of a manual typewriter. Not too young to have cultivated literary dreams while staring at a computer monitor. These would mostly be writers who first met the Selectric in its natural environment — the office — where they began their careers as clerical assistants to publishers, literary agents, lawyers, or advertising executives.
My first fling with a Selectric was a summer romance. We met at a job in my college library typing index cards for the reference catalogue. I remember that it was blue and made me feel infallible with its flat field of crunching keys and backspace correction capabilities. After graduating, I had a two-year affair with a Selectric at a tiny book publishing company that no longer exists. Like many an upwardly mobile office drudge (then they were called assistants; today they’re interns), I performed self-abasing tasks with a smile (I was working! In New York!) and bided my time.
Returning to school to study literature, I made my first serious commitment to a Selectric. I bought a reconditioned model that was gray like a mushroom and excitable like a Pomeranian. Every time I hit the return key, the top sprang open and the motor stopped. I had to pause mid-sentence to slam the top back into place and restart the humming so that it sounded like clickety-clackety-clickety-clackety-THWANG-THWACK-whir
. When I could no longer stand the interruptions, I staggered with the machine down the five flights of my Upper Upper West Side apartment building and around the corner to a repair shop on Broadway.
The fix was always temporary. It never occurred to me to buy another machine. This Selectric was my muse — a stolid, prickly, unreliable one whose top was likely to blow at any moment — but a partner. Will I ever think of the whiteness of Melville’s whale without envisioning the hulking silhouette of my temperamental fungus-colored companion?
As I type these sentences, I’m surrounded by supportive technology distributed across multiple components. Wires are everywhere. Yet I doubt I’ll look back 20-odd years to today and think of the toil and sport of writing as an endeavor I share with a machine. The memory will be of just me, alone with my words.