Typing writers: an endangered species (but not yet extinct)

Typewriters may be headed the way of the quill – and ribbons and parts hard to find – but there’s a surprisingly long list of famous authors who refuse to switch to computers, Robert Messenger writes

Up until he died last month, American author John Updike continued to use his

sleek black lacquered

76-year-old Olivetti MP1 portable typewriter.

‘‘We’re growing old and erratic together,’’ Updike said of his Olivetti in an interview he gave towards the end of his life. He told Douglas Belkin of The Boston Globe, ‘‘The spacebar is OK, but the carriage return is a little wobbly. If it breaks down for good, I don’t think I’ll bother to fix it.’’

Updike never had to make that call. His typewriter, built in Italy in 1932, the year he was born, outlived him. Like so many other classic typewriters of the era, it was made to last.

What happened with Updike and his typewriter will be a continuing thing. The ranks of living 20th century writers will, of course, diminish. Given the expanding trade for them among a growing world- wide army of collectors, the number of old typewriters will not.

Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson occasionally took his IBM Selectric out into the Colorado snow and shot it. Somehow the typewriter survived, but on February 20 three years ago, Thompson shot himself. Gone, but not forgotten. The week Updike died, a certain Vyvian Raoul of the Temporary School of Thought gave a ‘‘24-hour performance’’ in London by typing Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on an Olivetti Valentine, which apparently handled its considerable word count with aplomb.

One-finger typist David Sedaris, satirist and son of an IBM typewriter salesman, says he detests computers for being ‘‘undemocratic’’ in not wanting to share the world with typewriters. He fears typewriters are headed the way of the quill. Yet, so long as authors such as Sedaris and another IBM Selectric devotee, David Mamet, continue to speak out about their virtues, typewriters will refuse to fade quietly away.

The deaths of Updike and Donald Westlake in the past six weeks may have taken two more names from the surprisingly long list of famous writers who, even at the onset of the 21st century, still used manual typewriters. But they were far from the last of a dying breed.

Sedaris took himself off the list last year, finally defeated by the post-9/11 inconvenience of trying to get a typewriter through airport security. His problem preoccupied subscribers to the on-line Yahoo! typewriter forum run by US guru Will Davis (‘‘The Portable Typewriter Reference Site’’) for weeks on end.

Before succumbing, Sedaris had said, ‘‘When forced to leave my house for an extended period of time, I take my typewriter with me, and together we endure the wretchedness of passing through the X-ray scanner. The laptops roll merrily down the belt, while I’m instructed to stand aside and open my bag. To me it seems like a normal enough thing to be carrying, but the typewriter’s declining popularity arouses suspicion and I wind up eliciting the sort of reaction one might expect when travelling with a cannon. ‘It’s a typewriter,’ I say. ‘You use it when you write angry letters to airport authorities.’ ’’

Sedaris claims the goal of computers is to place typewriters ‘‘beside the feather quill and chisel; in the museum of antiquated writing instruments’’.

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