On the Virtues of Typewriters and Pencils
Here’s the thing with pencils and typewriters—they never go out of date, they never need updated software, and they never require virus protection.
Three years ago, I found I was spending a lot of my writing time making my computer usable. I had an iMac, of course, which was great, but for a portable I had an IBM ThinkPad, which seemed to have been steeped in a stew of viruses right from the factory. I got tired of jerking around with Windows, so I erased it and loaded on (per my friend Jason’s suggestion) SUSE Linux. This worked well for a while, but then I discovered I couldn’t network it to the iMac and was spending a lot of time emailing files to myself. There had to be an easier way.
There was. For computers, Alexas insisted (twist my arm, dear) that we scrap all the old ones and buy two brand-new Macs—an eMac and an iBook. So we did, and they’re working fine. But as far as writing drafts of work, I wanted the speed of typing without the BS of computers, so I got an IBM Selectric III. If you’ve never typed on one of these babies, I urge you to seek one out and give it a try. A profound sense of solidity and competence emanates from these machines, and each letter you type bangs onto the paper with a reassuring snap, much like a rivet into a ship’s hull. But I digress.
The only rub with the Selectric was that it required power, so I decided to go even older-school and find me a manual typewriter. One day I was helping Jason (a notorious pack rat) clean out one of his 37 storage units, and we came upon an 80-year-old L.C. Smith & Corona. He gave it to me as “payment” for helping him, and I added it to my burgeoning collection.
Then, recently, the Smith & Corona began to fail (the period key stopped working), so I started thinking about another manual to replace it. I’d always loved the ones Hemingway used (Remingtons & Royals), and I must admit I liked the association, so I bought a Royal Quiet Deluxe from Mr. Typewriter. The one he sent me had the classic “Little Old Lady” story: it had sat in a woman’s closet for over fifty years, taken out only three or four times to type a letter. It was made before WWII, so it has about 10 times more steel than it needs, but I’m not complaining.
The main point about writing with typewriters is that they’re an anti-technology technology. For one thing, it takes considerable practice to type well on a typewriter—especially a manual, which you won’t be able to use if your fingers aren’t strong. This means that you need to write slower, and as a result you find yourself choosing your words more carefully. Also, since they’re only good for typing, there’s no email, porn or video games to distract you.
As for pencils, they may be slower (a lot slower, in fact), but they’re reliable. I also like the process of sharpening them. (Think of Special Forces soldiers sharpening their Bowie knives before a covert op.) If I’m working in pencil that morning, I’ll usually pull out a dozen or so fresh ones and sharpen them until the points could penetrate the hide of a shark. When one becomes dull, I move it to the back of the line and rotate them until it’s time to sharpen all of them again. For the record, like an expert wine taster, I’ve sampled just about every pencil out there, and if you’re searching for the perfect pencil, let me save you some time. The following are the three best (not in order because each one is great for its own reasons):
* The Mirado Black Warrior – Anytime they show a cup of pencils on a movie or TV show, these are the ones you see. Says Alexas, “They’re black, so they don’t stand out in a picture.” Besides being photogenic, the Black Warrior is round and won’t hurt your fingers during long writing sessions (they were Steinbeck’s favorite for this reason). Also, the lead, while not harder than other #2s, is more resilient, so you get fewer annoying breaks.
* Staples brand – Believe it or not, these are consistently good pencils. What’s better, they’re cheap. A box of 72 might run you four bucks. Although they’re the old-school hexagonal shape, the lead is nice and dark, and the erasers work well.
* Staedtler Noris ergosoft – Made in Germany, these are almost impossible to get in the U.S. When I first discovered them four or five years ago, Staples and other places carried them. Then, for some reason (either they weren’t popular enough or they were too popular, outselling the other brands), they suddenly disappeared. After going without them for a few months, I finally tracked down an obscure wholesaler out of Illinois that carried them and had to order a gross. But why do I like them?
First, they have a triangular grip, so they’re ergonomic. Second, they have a rubbery coating that gives with pressure (soft), so your little fingies don’t get bruised. The lead is a rich black (although it breaks a little too often for my taste) and the coating has an aesthetically pleasing black & yellow design. The only downside to these pencils, besides their rarity, is that they don’t have erasers. If you never make any mistakes, you’ll be fine.
For more on pencils, you’ve got to see this website—a BLOG on pencils, with reviews: Pencil Revolution. Enjoy.
** As an addendum, following is a little video of me using some of my typewriters. This video was filmed by my friend Jason Scott a few years after this blog entry originally appeared. It’s titled “Equipment Test” because he’s a documentary filmmaker and was testing out his new camera equipment.