I have rarely come into contact with a typewriter, except when bashing away at one at a garage sale and dancing to Dolly Parton's 9-5
News today that the world's last typewriter factory – in Mumbai, India – has closed down has proved thought-provoking, even if the story is apparently false. I was born in 1983, so I have rarely come into contact with a typewriter, except when bashing away at one at a garage sale (the heavier thuds than the modern computer keyboard are appealing) and dancing to Dolly Parton's 9-5.
What interests me about typewriters is not the nostalgia factor but the way it – and other technologies – have changed the way we write. Typewriters certainly made writing easier – the speed of fingers on keys is much closer to that of racing thought than handwriting (clear handwriting, anyway).
Were they an advance in terms of composition, however? Today, when I write an article on my Mac, I can rearrange its structure at will, move sentences, paragraphs, words in a moment. Second thoughts can obliterate first thoughts. My spelling – previously bee-worthy, now disabled by the phonetics of shorthand – does not need to be good, and autocorrect can catch errors before I even know I've made them. Does this make us more careless? Typewriters, being dumb machines (opposed to our 'smart' computers), do not allow such rejigging.
Manuscripts, too, are much closer to typewriters in their inflexibility: most changes must wait for the next draft. (Picture: Raymond Carver at his typewriter.)
The advantage of flexibility that computers give, however, gives a false impression of the creative process, even as it makes it slicker. One of the reasons universities and libraries are always trying to get hold of writers' archives is not just for the unpublished material, but for the hand-written addenda and corrigenda and notes that manuscripts have. Did Evelyn Waugh want to replace this word with that? Was Virginia Woolf originally intending to have Mrs Dalloway buy the roses herself?
The process of handwriting, then hand-editing, work, with scratchings-out and addings-in, is much more revealing of the thought process of the writer than seeing an electronically-edited version. We still get markings on drafts, but many revisions have already been dealt with. Thanks to computers, a printed page of text is now a blank slate.
I am reading a new biography of Tolstoy for the Spear's Book Awards, and while bashing out War and Peace on a typewriter or a computer would be some achievement, to have handwritten it – six thousand manuscript pages, according to the biog – is astonishing. Even for a slim novel, handwriting is a labour. Is the time-consuming process worth it? Presumably we wouldn't put pen to paper until we'd thought a little more. And think, if you so choose, of posterity.
The typewriter might not be dead, but most of the benefits of its inflexibility are.