Sunday, November 14, 2010

Auster's Typewriter

We went to Coolidge Corner yesterday, where I bought a remaindered copy of Paul Auster's Collected Prose. Expanded Edition at the Brookline Booksmith. I already own quite a bit of that prose, but this edition contains "The Story of My Typewriter." Michael Leddy referred to it in the comments a few days ago, and I wanted to read it.

The story is about his Olympia Portable. It's "illustrated."

I believe that I or, perhaps better, my father owned an Olympia Portable during the sixties. Some traveling salesman had been able to sell it to him because he convinced him that typing "is an important business skill for business people." And this typewriter would allow his sons to acquire that skill and thus become successful in business. So I had to take an evening course, having to carry the damn thing about two miles once a week for a whole summer. I never learned touch typing on it, just because I did not see the point of it and resented having to learn a skill that was only fit "for girls." Nor did it help that all the others in the class were older girls—young women, really— whose interest in me, insofar as they had interests in me at all, were rather "motherly.' They felt sorry for me and gave good advice as to how I could overcome my clumsiness in dealing with the machine. If there had been any chance I would learn how to touch type before they showed their concern, it was completely eradicated afterward.

I finally taught myself touch typing on a computer during the late eighties. I never became successful in business, though.

Back to Auster: He got his Olympia in 1974 and has been using it ever since.

He also tells us that he never made the switch to a computer or word processor because he was told that he could lose all he had written in a session by pressing the wrong button. Too bad.

Soon enough, people felt sorry for Auster or rather berated him for not going with the time; and, in a reaction that reminded me of my former self and its allergy to touch typing, he "began to develop a certain affection" for his typewriter. "Until then, I hadn't felt particularly attached to my typewriter. It was simply a tool to do my work, but now that it had become an endangered species, one of the last surviving artifacts of twentieth-century homo scripturus, he came slowly to think of the typewriter as a him, rather than as an it.

My former self would have asked: "Why 'him' and not 'her'? The Olympia is after all a German product and the typewriter is known as "Die Schreibmaschine." My present self just does not understand. It has no desire to personalize any machine or tool. I would not even think of my Zettelkasten as a partner in communication, but at most as secondary or working memory.

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