The Typewriter Century: A Cultural History of Writing Practices
University of Toronto Press (February 2, 2021), 275 pages
Kindle edition $18.12, Amazon paperback $32.95
I have a long history with the typewriter. When I was in elementary school I asked Mrs. Werner next door to teach me to type on her manual upright typewriter. I guess I was a poor student because I never did learn to touch type. Over the next few years I whined enough that my grandparents finally got me a typewriter for my birthday. It was a small Royal portable. It wasn’t well made, and it kept going back to the stationery store for repair. Eventually, the very patient owner, Mr. Hubb, replaced it with a newer and slightly better model.
For some reason that typewriter never made it to Pitzer College in Claremont with me. Instead, I took an old manual portable, perhaps an Underwood. It too had its problems, and it frequently visited the typewriter repair shop in Pomona. But it got me through college. After college, unable to bear the thought of leaving Claremont, I shared an apartment with my friend George. He let me use his electric typewriter, but objected to my frequent use of liquid paper, which he called “bird shit.” It must have been after I moved to Oklahoma City that I got a portable SCM typewriter, which I loved because I could effortlessly swap out the ink cartridge for the correction cartridge. My final typewriter was a fairly fancy one that had a memory of several hundred characters.
It was with interest, then, that I saw an ad in the New York Review of Books for The Typewriter Century. The book presents a unique viewpoint as author Martyn Lyons is an Australian educated at Oxford, and the University of Toronto Press published the book. We certainly read more about Australian writers than we might find in a book on the same subject by another author.
Lyons writes both about the history of the machine and the people who used it. It is interesting to read about the various iterations and attempts at creating a mechanical system for writing. The author points out that the QWERTY keyboard was not necessarily the best option to keep fast typists from jamming keys (the reason Christopher Latham Sholes invented it); it was simply the design that won out. And, as we all experience every day, it still dominates the market despite the occasional attempt to replace it.
I found the discussions about the relationships that writers had with their typewriters fascinating. Lyon writes that the typewriter was essential for T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway. He notes, “The machine was inseparable from their creative work.” Of course, I suspect that Hemmingway’s terse style was inherent to his character and not strictly the result of his using the typewriter.
Lyons dispels the myth of Jack Kerouac and his scrolls. Yes, Kerouac did write early drafts on scrolls, sheets of paper taped together. However, he submitted his manuscripts to his publishers in the conventional manner.
The author spends considerable space discussing Erle Stanley Gardner and the writing factory he set up on a ranch outside Temecula, California, just half an hour south of where I sit composing this review. Gardner had a staff of typists to shape his considerable output into a form suitable for submission to publishers. Gardner didn’t especially love writing, however. Lyons reports Gardner told an interviewer, “I’m in the game for money, and if I have any talent I haven’t prostituted, and find it out, I’ll start her out on the streets tonight.”
Lyons devotes a chapter to women authors of the twentieth century, from Agatha Christie to Barbara Taylor Bradford. He provides some interesting insight into their lives and work, but his treatment comes off as just a tad sexist.
The treatment Lyons gives to the transition from the typewriter to the word processor is weak from my perspective. He fails to discuss that there was something of a battle as to whether word processing should be done on a separate machine or be incorporated into a multi-function computer. When I was living in Oklahoma and visited my college friend Sue in Santa Monica in the early 1980s she was working for the RAND Corporation. She said that she believed that word processing was splitting off from computing. As late as 1990 or so, my friend Don, a retired schoolteacher, wanted to write his memoir for his family. He was debating whether to buy a word processor or a computer. I recommended a computer; he bought a dedicated word processor. Several months later we had a conversation that went like this:
Don: “Maybe I should have bought a computer.”
Me: “Don, I told you that.”
Don: (sheepishly) “I know.”
Today one would be hard pressed to find a dedicated word processor, and I’m not sure why someone would want one.
The Typewriter Century is enjoyable reading for anyone interested in writing and its associated technologies.
Between the Lines: Stories from the Underground
Uli Beutter Cohen
Simon & Schuster (November 9, 2021), 381 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $12.49
Uli Beutter Cohen is a German who lived in California and then moved to New York City. She learned to love the subway, and one day got up the courage to ask another passenger what they were reading. That led to her founding the Subway Book Review, which in turn led to her compiling this book.
Between the Lines is unique in its format. The heading for each chapter is the name of the person she interviews. The subhead is the title and author of the book the person is reading. The content of the chapter is a transcript of the exchange between Cohen and the subway rider, in which the rider talks both about the book they are reading and their own personal lives. Most chapters contain a photo of the person holding up a copy of the book they were reading at the subway station where Cohen interviewed them. Each chapter is only two or three pages.
Cohen conducted the interviews between 2015 and 2020. She admits that CODID-19 impacted her work and that she noticed an increase in the number of people reading e-books. You wouldn’t know that reading the book. She provides a book laden with interviews (the chapters are not numbered), and many of the interviews took place in 2020.
What you won’t find in the book is wall street executives, Madison Avenue advertising people, or professors from Columbia University. Instead she interviews actors, composers, writers, and social activists. She talks to immigrants, people of color, lawbreakers, gay men, and lesbians. Each has his or her own story.
There are interconnections. Cohen interviews the author Roxanne Gay, whom she found reading Edith Wharton on the subway, and the owner of the Strand Bookstore reading one of Gay’s books.
There are flashes of insight throughout the book. One subway rider quotes Alan Watts saying, “We live in a time of unusual insecurity,” and points out that the quote is from 1951. Another rider tells Cohen, “Punjabi migrant workers helped to build the transcontinental railroad in the late 1800s,” and questions why they were not acknowledged along with the Chinese. Another mixes the historical with the fictional: “When I was younger, my heroes were Spider-Man, X-Men, Malcolm X, and MLK. They were all sticking up for the little guy, creating unity through equity and justice.”
Nuance and complexity abound. One subway rider tells Cohen:
I’m an Ashkenazi Jew who was born in ’84 to a single lesbian mom in Tennessee, where it was illegal for her to be in possession of the sperm she used to get pregnant with me. As a queer spawn born into a gay family in the South, I have resistance in my DNA. I know that Black liberation is my liberation, too.
If you find the complexity and diversity of humankind fascinating, there is plenty of that for you in Between the Lines.
Terry and I have long loved our reverse osmosis water systems. When we had just bought our house in Gilroy we attended a home show and came across a reverse osmosis (R.O.) system vendor. We signed on and had the system installed. We loved the crystal-clear ice cubes we got. (Never mind that a reverse osmosis system throws away a gallon of water for every gallon you get. I don’t want to talk about that.)
When we did our kitchen remodel the workers mistakenly trashed the system in the destruct process. We replaced it with a system from a company our contractor recommended. It was worse that tap water: my hot tea came out super strong, So I pulled out the Yellow Pages (remember the Yellow Pages?) and found a local water treatment company that installed a new reverse osmosis system for us. He was a good guy, and he maintained it for us until we sold our house in 2015. That system was in fact an improvement as the previous vendor was part of a national company and the service technicians had to come in from out of town.
Here in Hemet, in November 2020 we had new countertops and a stainless steel sink installed in our kitchen. We decided that while we were at it we would install an R.O. system. I told our contractor what we wanted and he said he would check with his plumbing subcontractor. The contractor came back and said that the plumbing subcontractor told him that he installed and serviced R.O. systems. We said, “Let’s do it.” We did and loved the system.
Last November I called the plumbing subcontractor and said it was time to service the R.O. system. He asked who provided the system. Well, uh, you did. He had no record of what he installed. I sent him a photo of the system under our sink, but he never responded.
Yelp pointed me to a company here in town that specializes in water purification. I sent the owner two photos of the system. He confirmed it was a standard system that he could service. (At least the plumbing subcontractor did install a standard system and not one of those one-offs that both guys told me are out there.) Our new R.O. service technician replaced the various filters and pointed out that the unit was on the floorboard under the sink when it needed to be attached to the cabinet wall. He fixed that.
We’re now good for pure water (and those marvelous crystal-clear ice cubes) for another year.
The Equivalents: A Story of Art, Female Friendship, and Liberation in the 1960s
Vintage (May 19, 2020), 359 pages
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $15.87
In the fall of 1960 Radcliffe College announced the formation of the Radcliffe Institute for Independent Study, a place for “intellectually displaced women.” This was the creation of Radcliffe president Mary Bunting. The idea was to offer office space, study or research time, and a financial stipend to women with a PhD or “the equivalent” in artistic achievement.
This caught the attention of poets Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin, good friends who supported each other both personally and in their writing. They decided to apply, but to apply separately, not letting the institute know they knew each other. The institute accepted both for the 1961-1962 academic year. Also accepted was painter Barbara Swan. All three continued their fellowship for the 1962-1963 academic year. Joining them for that year were sculptor Marianna Pineda and Tillie Olsen, the writer and social activist.
What the five women had in common was that none of them had a PhD, and all were accepted for their “equivalent” artistic achievement. The five became friends and called themselves “the equivalents.”
While Author Maggie Doherty extensively documents the women’s time at the institute, she recounts the lives of the women in the years immediately before their time there and discusses their lives after their time on campus. Sexton and Kumin get the bulk of the attention in the book, but we learn a lot about the struggles of the other three women as well.
Doherty also documents other women who were active in the era. She discusses Betty Friedan and the impact of her book The Feminine Mystique. She points out that Friedan one time referred to lesbians as a “lavender menace,” and prevented them from participating in the first convention that her National Organization of Women (NOW) organized.
The author also discusses Alice Walker, who was also a fellow at the institute. Doherty offers insight into the Black experience, and how many Black women had no use for Friedan’s brand of feminism. She notes that many Black women didn’t see men as the enemy but believed that Black men could help empower them. Doherty also explains that many Black women didn’t share the same perspective on abortion as white feminists. They were aware of the historic overlap between birth control and eugenics, and knew that Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic, had some eugenicist beliefs.
The Equivalents is Maggie Doherty’s first book, but it is thorough, well-researched, and highly readable. The book offers useful insight into some the lives of some of the creative women in the sixties and seventies.
The Difficult Words of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to His Most Perplexing Teachings
Abingdon Press (August 3, 2021), 176 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $14.53
I am very familiar with the work of Amy-Jill Levine. I have listened to her lectures in the Great Courses and I have read her book The Bible With and Without Jesus. Levine offers an interesting viewpoint. She is an observant Jew who is a professor of New Testament studies. From her Jewish background she takes the perspective that the Bible should be interpreted and debated, as the Jewish Talmud exemplifies.
Levine does not stand by as an objective scholar. She inserts herself into the conversation. In discussing Jesus’s statement that no one can follow him unless he hates his mother and father, she states, “My first thought is to reject the entire Gospel. I’m not hating my parents. I’m not hating life. Not me. No way.” She goes on to say that this commandment cannot be taken literally, especially considering that Jesus tells his disciples that they must obey the Torah, including the commandment to honor your father and mother. She suggests that the statement really takes the perspective of those left behind: “My son must really hate me to have done that.”
The author is not afraid to engage in debate. She tells how she wrote a commentary on the Gospel of Luke with a colleague. Levine’s position is that Luke was not progressive on women’s issues. For example, in the parallel stories of Anna and Simeon only Simeon speaks. But she says her colleague believes Luke has Jesus promoting an active role for women in his communities.
Levine avoids taking the easy way out on tricky passages. Regarding the statement of Jesus that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, she refers to the theory that there was a small gate in the city wall where you had to unpack your camel in order to get it through. She states, “There is no such gate.” Similarly, she writes, “Jesus, like Paul, presumed that slaves were a normal part of life.”
The author differs from mainline scholarship on some points. She suggests Luke was written about 90 CE, later than most scholars believe. She also believes that Matthew drew from Luke, where the standard belief is that both Matthew and Luke drew from a common “Q” source. She writes, “I am also finding it increasingly likely that the Book of Revelation was written before the Gospels,” where the accepted belief is that it is a product of the late 90s.
Levine concludes, “We can work together. Since we find common history in the first century, or what is called Second Temple Judaism, we can learn together and interpret together.”
I’m more than happy to learn and interpret with Amy-Jill Levine.
My old iPad Air 2 finally reached the point where it was just too cranky for me to use. It would be at over fifty percent charge, but when I connected to the external keyboard it would blip out and then tell me I needed to charge it. That’s really annoying when you’re sitting on the bed with your lap desk and the cord on the charger plug just barely makes it to the wall outlet. Not to mention trying to use it with the cord in the way.
I did have that iPad for a while. Over six years, in fact. I bought it in December 2015, so that’s a pretty good run for an electronic device.
My new iPad is a fourth-generation iPad Air. I also purchased a compatible Bluetooth keyboard. Instead of selecting the cheapest keyboard, I bought one that looked particularly sturdy and functional. It was easy to set up both. I encountered only a few glitches, and the two play nicely together. It was not inexpensive, but for something that I use every single evening it was well worth the cost. The screen on my new iPad is more than an inch bigger than on my old one. That’s really nice.
I will get a lot of use out of this duo. And they should last a while.
Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean
read by Dan Woren
Blackstone Audio, Inc. (February 14, 2017)
print edition: Trinity University Press (January 16, 2017)
free for Audible members, $14.95 for nonmembers
In his introduction to Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean, Jonathan White describes leading an educational tour on his ship Crusader when it ran aground. This despite his being an experienced sailor who well knew that he had be familiar with and respect the tides. The passengers had to be rescued by a fishing boat while he and a crew member stayed with the ship which eventually righted itself.
This incident prompted White to study the science behind the tides, and he embarked on a multi-year endeavor, taking him around the world. He visited the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada, where migrating birds ate tiny shrimp, all in tune with the tides. Those mud shrimp must come out from under the sand to eat and mate, despite the risk of being consumed by the birds. But they must do so in sync with the tide, and their timing must be precise. White visited Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of France where tourists and supply trucks must time their visits in accordance with the tides. He traveled to the mouth of the Quintang River in China, home to the frightening Silver Dragon tidal bore. Returning to Eastern Canada he explored gathering mussels under the ice with an indigenous hunter. Off the coast of Panama he talked to native peoples whose islands are falling victim to rising sea levels, and he learned how the people of Venice are learning to cope with the same.
White spends a lot of time discussing the history of how humans have tried to understand the tides. He talks about Aristotle, the Plinys (father and son), Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. I found these passages to be less interesting, and in some places questioned White’s research and credibility. He states that Pliny the Younger’s work was translated into Latin in the Middle Ages. Really? I read Pliny’s letters in their original classical Latin when I was in college.
His discussions of science and technology were more engaging. White explains that while we tend to think of the tides as being solely controlled by the moon he tells us it is more complicated than that. He notes that while the Atlantic Ocean is largely controlled by the moon, the sun has a greater influence on the Pacific. He points out that the oceans are vibrating basins that respond to the influences of the moon and sun. The earth’s rotation has an influence as well. How the tides act depends on both the moon and sun up there as well as the fluid dynamics in the ocean down here.
White talks about European tide mills in earlier centuries that worked similar to windmills, but used the power of the tides rather than the wind. He describes seeing a nineteenth century tidal flour mill in action. The author discusses modern-day attempts to use the tides to generate electricity, something that is tricky, both because of the power of the tides beating on the equipment and due to the complicated environmental implications.
Voice actor Dan Woren expertly reads the book. He is a pleasure to listen to and White’s material is fascinating.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Anchor (December 18, 2007), 258 pages
originally published by Pantheon Books, 1994
Kindle edition $10.99, Amazon paperback $8.69
Writing Your Story (video recording of a one-day workshop)
streaming video $39.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
(if it’s not on sale don’t worry – the sale price will come around again)
or stream with a Wondrium subscription
I have a long history with both Anne Lamott and Joyce Maynard. All three of us are the same age.
I first encountered Joyce Maynard after I graduated from Pitzer College in 1975 when I found her book Looking Back while I was working at B. Dalton Bookseller. I loved her take on the culture of the late sixties and the early seventies and believed we had a very similar worldview. Later, I discovered she wanted to be the “voice of her generation,” but did not hold those views at all. I felt betrayed, to say the least. I was disgruntled by her commentaries on the CBS Radio opinion segment Spectrum, in which she took the conservative viewpoint. Maynard was, of course, the mysterious woman who dropped out of Yale to live with J. D. Salinger, something she wrote about twenty-five years later in her memoir At Home in the World. Over the years and especially having read At Home in the World I have come to forgive her.
I first became acquainted with Ann Lamott when she was a regular guest on the San Francisco public radio program West Coast Live in the mid-1990s. She raised her son Sam as a single mom and wrote about it in her book Operating Instructions. Sam was born just a year before our nephew Race, and Terry’s sister also raised Race as a single mother. Lamott wrote her book Bird by Bird as a distillation of what she taught in her writing classes. She has also written several books on spirituality and faith, with which I have resonated.
It occurred to me that if I am serious about continuing to develop my writing skills I ought to read Bird by Bird. I have no idea why I didn’t read it long ago. Since I have a Wondrium subscription I decided to read Lamott’s book and watch Maynard’s workshop simultaneously. After all, these two women have something in common that I lack: they have both published books. I decided I had something to learn from both of them.
Lamott and Maynard agree on a lot, but they disagree on one significant point. Lamott takes the view that most teachers of writing espouse: if you’re stuck, just start writing and clean it up later. Maynard does not believe in that approach. She believes that you’ll never be able to properly clean it up, so you should carefully consider what you want to say before you write.
They both advocate writing in small chunks. Lamott talks about one-inch picture frames and Maynard tells her students to use “containers.” They both make clear that you need to keep your readers’ interest. Lamott was fortunate to have a father who was a published author, and his agent was willing to indulge Lamott by looking at her work. He returned one piece, however, with the comment that Lamott seemed to think that everything she did was interesting. Maynard emphasizes that not all details are equally interesting. She says that it’s probably not worth noting that your English professor had brown eyes. However, if he smoked a cigar in class, that might be worth mentioning.
The focus of Bird by Bird is on fiction, so much of the book doesn’t apply to my nonfiction writing. But there is a lot I was able to take away from it nonetheless. Maynard focuses her class on memoir, so she provided me a lot of useful material.
Both Lamott and Maynard take a similar approach to getting your work published. Lamott says:
Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.
Maynard tells the class much the same thing. It’s not about getting published; it’s about the opportunity to express yourself. She tells the workshop that getting published will not make you rich. Recorded in 2018, she tells the group that she drives a 1995 Honda Civic.
I learned a lot from both women, and they no doubt have more to teach me about writing.