I miss the typewriter

It’s been just over 25 years since I received my doctorate. I remember it very well. An oath to preserve my integrity as a scholar (in Latin), being told that my name was in the second book where all doctorates were recorded (the first ended in 1930s) or the pro-vice-chancellor (in Polish ‘prorektor’) who was complaining that his gown with fur would make him sweat. But what I remember most, is typing my doctorate. On a typewriter.

I remember sitting at the kitchen table in a small flat in Krakow (in the communist ‘paradise’ of Nowa Huta) and pounding the keys in my mechanical typewriter. It took some force (not excessive) and even more skill, if you wanted to type with most of your fingers.  I still don’t know how professional typists (mostly women) made their pinkies hit the keys hard enough. I couldn’t. And I still remember the feeling of hitting the lever on the right which moved the the page one line up and the roller (I don’t have English vocabulary for typewriters!) to the left. I will always remember the sound it made. It was the sound of success!

Anyway, I didn’t write in longhand (there is a story about it, too), so I typed and typed, and typed (it was slow) until I finished my dissertation. I ended up with a pile of typed pages and after some time I started reading them. Three things were useful. Scissors, glue, and the masking type (and a pencil). You read, you cut, you pasted it somewhere else, you stuck masking tape (it was called ‘goose bumps’ as it was prickly) on lines and wrote on it. And so, after a time you ended up with a higher pile of pages whose material integrity was kept by glue and masking tape. Then the process was repeated, and again. Eventually you gave it to a professional typist who would type it all for you without making any mistakes.

And I actually miss it. Yes, it was noisy, messy, longer, frustrating, sometimes infuriating. I still miss it. Here is why.

First, it demanded discipline. Today’s word processors allow you to be very lazy. You can make all sorts of mistakes, but you make them in the full knowledge that after a click or two you can undo them. A mistake in the typescript could not be undone. It could be painted over, masked, but you would always see it. You could only ‘repair’ it, never undo.  Bigger changes had to wait till you had it all, and you needed scissors and glue! So, you thought harder when typing. You prepared yourself for typing.

As I wrote here, I am all for preparation, but the typewriter demanded preparation that was of a different order.

Second, all this made you in control. Word processing gives you an illusion of control. As we are able to change everything at a moment’s notice, effortlessly, what exactly are we in control of? Our keyboards? The possibility of effortless endless change means you do change the text endlessly. It never stops as you tinker with yet another sentence. Who would have thought of 5, 10, 20 versions of a text types on a typewriter?! That would be foolish, not, that in fact would be impossible!

Third, the typewriter also gave you the materiality of your text. You actually could cut it in half and paste it somewhere else. It added to the feeling of control, but also, as glue was messy, you did it with caution. And the little bell sound when you were about to reach the end of the line, when you hit the lever on the right. Exhilarating!

Fourth and final, it slowed the process down. It allowed you to think, to consider.

And this is perhaps why we can never go back to the typewriter. It doesn’t allow us to borrow the methodological paragraph from the previous article or quickly rehash a paper for the next conference. The typewriter belongs to an era with no RAE/REF, an era of thinking not just publishing.

My doctorate was just about the only text I wrote using a typewriter (apart from a few small articles). Then came the word-processor (I used the chi-writer). I was elated when I could write the first things using it; so brilliant, such possibilities. Compared to today’s, it was very primitive, yet, it felt so modern. A young man sitting in an institute of the Polish Academy of Science in Krakow had finally joined the West!

And I would never (in fact, never ever) have believed that 25 years later I would say, I actually miss the typewriter.


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