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CARPE LIBRUM: A tome on typewriters proves mechanical type never goes out of style

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and/or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

The Typewriter Revolution
Richard Polt
The Countryman Press, 2015, pg. 382

“Do you have ‘The Typewriter Revolution’?” a lovely young lady asked as she walked up to the front desk of the bookstore a couple of weeks ago.

“Well, we have Clyde Edgerton’s typewriter in the back,” I responded. “You can use it, but it is not for sale. I’m sorry.”

A few years ago Clyde brought us a Royal as a long-term loan. But it remains his and we cannot sell it.

She looked at me like I was crazy. Then she ventured, “No, it’s a book about typewriters—how to fix them, collect them, enjoy them. Like, if you like typewriters … this guy … this is the book to have! I saw the one in the back and, yeah, you should have it, if you don’t.”

Boy, was she right. Holy cow!

When “The Typewriter Revolution” arrived with our order of new books the following week, I almost fell out of my seat. To explain this simply: It is pornography for typewriter lovers.

Yes, it is filled with beautiful pictures of typewriters, typewriter repair, typewritten pages, and typewriters in the modern era as a form of resistance to the overarching internet-soaked world to which we have allowed ourselves to become hostage. So much of the allure of typewriters seems to be wrapped in nostalgia and almost mystery. 

One of the things I see over and over again is how using a typewriter—a skill that was pretty common less than 25 years ago—has become forgotten knowledge. We have Clyde’s typewriter in the store, a typewriter in the loft above the store, and typewriters in the bed and breakfast, so we get to watch people interact with them pretty often.  Over and over again, it is brought home to me that people are mystified by these relatively simple machines. 

Case in point: We had a 50-something gentleman staying in the loft; he grew up with typewriters before computers became the dominant mode for writing. Immediately, he told me the typewriter was broken. When I responded it was working fine when I cleaned the loft before he arrived, he just shook his head. After his departure I checked the machine and a lever had been lowered that locked the carriage in place. I raised the lever and everything worked fine. I just stood there, shaking my head at how quickly that simple bit of knowledge evaporated.

The repair section actually reads very similarly to the Foxfire books on lost survival skills. In many ways it is not an unreasonable comparison: In both cases, interviews with real people on the process and proper tools are essential to understanding the philosophy.    

In addition to repair, Polt also plays to passions and devotes a goodly section to the beauty of the physical object that is the beautiful typewriter. Pictures, history and evolution of the marriage of form and function play out across the pages in a way that, I must confess, makes me tear at the book hungrily like a teenage boy with a girlie mag. The collector’s mind is one Polt understands (probably inhabits actively) and when it comes to cataloging minutiae, he can fulfill even the most arcane desire. So for aspiring typewriter collectors, or even just a first-time buyer, there is a wealth of information about makes, models, pricing and locating these mechanical treasures. 

It is amazing to me how much people love typewriters and what reverence people hold for them. The joy people find in typewriters is unabashed and unbounded. I see it all the time in person. It is a constant in my daily life: someone typing on Clyde’s Royal and then taking a picture of what they typed with their smartphone.

Now, I am a card-carrying, self-professed Luddite. So it is no surprise I would like typewriters and eschew various digital horrors that seek to erode our existence. Polt has made peace with the digital age as a way to spread and share his love of the typewriter.

He doesn’t see them as relics of the past; the entire book is firmly grounded in the belief typewriters are very relevant not only to the here and now, but to the future. They are an essential part of art, communication, culture and technology. He sees typewriters as part of a revolution in human communication and expression that cannot be denied and will continue to grow and develop. I have to say, he almost gives me hope for the future of humanity.

Almost.

If anything, I enjoy the book because of Polt’s ability to see the digital age as a tool for saving and spreading love of something as decidedly non-digital as the typewriter.

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