Saturday, January 21, 2006

Type Cast 1

Looking back at my university days, I can’t believe that I wrote entire essays on, for instance, Hawthorne’s foot fetish or the “lesbian textile motif” in Willa Cather’s short stories, using a crappy, Sears brand teal plastic typewriter with a bum C key. How did I make it through a single page? And why don’t I have nose cancer from the pails of Wite-Out?

I hated that typewriter and hated typing even more. So when I bought my first adorable little Mac, one of the early “dollhouse” models that looked like an upturned grey bread box, I fell in instant and slavish love. The typewriter met a timely, much deserved death at the end of a hammer. I was tempted to make a kill trophy necklace with the keys.

With all that emotional baggage, I was surprised to find myself completely engrossed by Darren Wershler-Henry’s The Iron Whim, a crazy quilt history of typewriters and typing that tackles everything from the metaphoric importance of machine communications in Stoker’s Dracula to an examination of writing styles typical of authors who typed with one finger.

Wershler-Henry’s writing hops from subject to reference to anecdote in an engagingly frantic way that, appropriately enough, mimics the clacking, find-peck-stab-print action of typing itself. Unlike other composite histories, the kind that trace the social history of, say, paperweights or porridge, The Iron Whim generously lends itself to dipping, dabbling, and random shuffles. This is not a chronology, it’s a scrapbook, and is far more entertaining precisely because it is so loosely constructed.

Some readers may find Wershler-Henry’s fondness for communications philosophy and all theories French and obfusticating a bit tough to love, but such readers need only skip a page or two until they find themselves smack in the middle of another weird and wonderful, plainly told tale of the typewriter’s strange power. With Wershler-Henry, one is never very far from a tasty film reference or lurid allusion to drug-induced pop music, and watching the egghead wrestle the trash queen across the pages is half the fun.

Interviewing Wershler-Henry over the phone is exactly like reading his prose. He speaks faster than a Montreal waitress and moves effortlessly (and without prompting) from the criticism of Walter Benjamin to chair designs by surly Italian futurists. I tried to keep up, but at a failing 18 words per minute typing (keyboarding?) speed, I had to stop periodically for some finger yoga.

The obvious first question: Why write a book about a dead machine?

“I started this book for two reasons”, he begins, avant le deluge.

“I was thinking about bodies and machines and how they work together, especially cyborgs, but then I realized that everybody else was making a book about the same thing. So, I started thinking about writers and machines and how various machines have allowed writers to work – especially how there’s a difference between the way a keyboard works on a computer and how the same keyboard works on a typewriter.”

“The second thing that happened was that once I started telling people about my typewriter project , absolutely everyone, and I mean everyone, starting telling me about the old typewriters in their basements. Everyone seems to have one, but nobody uses them. Typewriters are tokens, people keep them the way 18the century writers kept skulls on their desks. I had to explore this weird nostalgia.”

And they’re kind of cute, I add, feeling suddenly guilty about my past typewriter abuse.

“Typewriters are attractive objects, and there are serious typewriter collectors out there. The typewriter is collected the way photos of Marilyn Monroe are collected, or Ernest Hemingway memorabilia – because typewriters are an icon of the last period of modernism, of a time when there was a direct physical process to writing. Because it was so physical, it’s easy for us to look back at the writing from the typewriter era as being un-alienated, more focused, even pure. Of course, this is an illusion, but we couldn’t see the illusions about typewriting as a kind of mastering act until after typewriters disappeared.”

I mention that I’ve just seen the film Capote, and noticed that whenever the director wants us to feel sympathy for the vile little gnome, he shows tiny Truman in a bare room sitting at a typewriter.

“Of course. Part of the reason that that visual cue works is that typing is a really pure kind of action – you hit a key, you get a letter on a physical page. There is an immediate, viewable, and stable response, and we read that stability as a kind of honest act because cause and effect are instantly manifest.”

Now that he’s cleared up one big mechano-cultural fixation, what’s next ? A book on blenders?

“Im really interested in how we interact with technology – specifically, why our interactions fail. Why does every VCR in the world blink 12:00 and can’t be made to stop? Why does your cell phone have 17 functions you’ve never learned to use? We have a perverse relationship to machines. We devise them to work for us, but the results end up messy and bad.”

The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting

Darren Wershler-Henry

McClelland & Stewart $29.99