Originally published on Dec. 2, 2012.
A couple weeks ago, my computer died. And my printer, useless without it, is moribund as well.
So I am writing this on a typewriter, one of the 23 archaic machines that clutter an upper-floor room in our house. But who needs a printer anyway? The typewriter prints as it writes.
I scarcely can express what pure joy it is to return — if only temporarily — to the instrument upon which I depended for the first 30 years of my working life.
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The pleasure is both tactile and auditory: the familiar feel of the slightly concave keys, the businesslike clatter of the metal letter arms striking the platen. How much more companionable it is than the brooding blue stillness of the electronic screen.
There is a sense almost of coming home from long exile.
Is it a bit more work? To be sure. It isn’t for nothing that such typewriters are called manual. The modern electronic ones are gadgets, different only in shape and size from iPhones and tablets, which generate images that are as ephemeral as reflections in a mirror.
Real typewriters actually make something.
Early in my newspaper life, I persuaded an editor to free me up for a journey on foot to celebrate the sweet flowering of the Ozark spring. A typewriter would have been too great a burden, so I took pencils, a knife to sharpen them and a fat paper notebook.
With a backpack, a canteen and some dry provisions, I rode a train and a bus southeast past Springfield, Mo., stepped over some stranger’s fence and, following quick and clear hill-country streams, walked nine days to Arkansas.
The April countryside was glorious with redbud blossoming and white explosions of dogwood lighting the forest. And the plain, good people I encountered along the way were unfailingly cordial.
I scribbled notes as I walked, and each night — working by firelight — wrote a small essay, summarizing the best of the day. I’d fold it and put it in a pre-stamped envelope, sometimes with a roll of exposed film. And the next morning I’d deposit it in the first back-country mailbox I happened to pass.
Never once did it fail to reach the newspaper in a day, or two at most. There a wonderful colleague, Winnifred Shields, would decipher my lefthanded scrawl and transcribe it to be set in type.
I was as proud of that little series of pieces as I’ve been of anything I’ve written since. And the editor was even more pleased when I submitted an expense voucher that, excluding train and bus fares, totaled just under $15 for those nine glorious days afield.
I think I learned from that project how unnecessary — and sometimes how treacherous — it is to have to depend on complicated devices. And there have been other lessons.
Two years later, traveling through Africa on what would be a five-month reporting assignment, I was committed to send back two stories a week. Communications from most of Africa in that time, the early 1960s, were sketchy at best. One had to improvise.
Pan Am and TWA then served much of the continent. Primitive though many of the countries were, almost all of them had functioning airports. The standard stratagem was to find a member of a U.S.-bound flight crew and ask if they’d take with them a fat envelope to drop in the mail when they got back to the States.
Never was that small request refused.
Two decades after that, I went with my wife and our two daughters to Paris to write my column from there for a year. I was sent with a laptop computer, told by my editor that it would greatly simplify getting my work to the paper. I was cautioned, however, that if I failed to turn on the machine for as much as nine days, the memory would die and the device would be useless. I’d taken my faithful portable along for insurance and had composed on it my first three columns, then typed them into the magical laptop to send.
On the first try, they didn’t go through. On the second, the device started sending — then abruptly the screen went blank. Finally, on the last attempt, out of nowhere there appeared on my screen an order for 20 crates of frozen herring.
“Call the Washington Post Paris bureau,” my editor advised by phone. “They’re using the same system and maybe they can help you.”
So I did as instructed.
“Hell,” said the man who answered, “I can’t even connect with our man in Rome.”
So I shut the thing off and kept it locked in a closet for nine days. After that our daughters could use it as a toy. And I found a better, more dependable way to file.
If each Friday I took my three columns for the week to the main Paris post office at 52 rue du Louvre before 7 p.m., thanks to the time difference they would be in New York the same evening and in Kansas City generally on Monday, and never later than Tuesday. Not once in 13 months did that system fail.
Perhaps I can be forgiven for considering the wondrous advantages of the cyberworld to be much overrated.