Not my Type

I used to type letters–lots of letters, scores of pages. I recall a letter that was 15 single-spaced pages long. No doubt there were many reasons why the thrill faded, but I am certain that one reason was the evolution of typing, from  manual typewriters to computer keyboards.

I taught myself to touch-type when I was in the army. Every night for two weeks I would sneak into the sergeant’s office, requisition a few sheets of paper, and type. The technique was to attend in turn to each line of keys for a few days. I would keep my hands in position and press keys until I remembered where each letter was, then type as many words as I could think of with just the letters in that row. After learning each row, I combined rows for several days, and voila!–I could touch-type.

There is no excuse for any adult not knowing how to type; all you need, apparently, is a sergeant with a convenient office, and some stolen paper. But to be fair to those who sat through months of typing class, I did not learn all the tabbing and margin gadgets, nor the appropriate forms of address and letter formats, let alone all those “Cc”s and “encl”s. And I think it is peculiar that carbon paper merely reproduces the letter in mirror-image on the back of the same page.

But back to the point: how the evolution of typing affected my interest in doing it. Anyone who has used a manual typewriter knows that it takes some effort and follow-through to press a key sufficiently hard for the letter to actually type. This positive feel is important: you knew when your fingers were in the right position, and the effort enhanced your sense of purpose as well as the sense and fact of finality. The sense of finality was important because actual erasure of errors was not possible, except by painting it out with whiteout, an activity that interrupts the flow of thought.

In addition, that finality made you think ahead whole sentences or even whole paragraphs. You actually had to write in your mind before committing it to paper. Or, if you were a freer spirit, you could simply go with what you happened to write, as if that were what you intended. This can produce interesting, if somewhat fictional, letters. Mistakenly starting a word with “pt”, for example, might mean that “pterodactyl” was suddenly to be introduced into the discussion.

As keyboards evolved, pressing those keys became far easier, making the act far more susceptible to clumsy errors. At the same time, errors became easier to correct; spelling could be corrected and whole sentences and paragraphs could be rearranged. It no longer mattered how sloppy your typing or your thinking was.

And that is the gist of why typing lost some of its charm: producing a typed, error-free page of coherent text was no longer a heroic effort, a source of pride. Now anyone can do it. The conjectured 100 monkeys typing at random will, with a good editor, surely reproduce the works of Shakespeare.

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