Photo via CNET, courtesy IBM.
You might have noticed tribute after 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.