From the delightful anachronism category, I present the gift I received from my wife Denise on the recent occasion of my XLVIIIth birthday. It is a Smith Corona manual portable typewriter, recently reconditioned, with a new ribbon.
In my teen years, my mother — knowing of my desire to be a writer — gave me a Smith Corona Electra 120. It was a pseudo-electric typewriter. I say “pseudo” because it was electric except for the carriage return, which was still manual. But it served me for many years until I purchased my first computer, an Apple IIe with a daisy-wheel printer and the fabled 80-column card (if I had to explain today what an 80-column card did, you wouldn’t be impressed).
This Smith Corona will occupy a functional place of honor near my 1948 Webster’s New International Dictionary Second Edition, Unabridged.
Some may wonder why I wax ecstatic over these anachronisms. After all, manual typewriters required re-typing pages when you made a significant error which couldn’t be covered up by correcting tape. Changing ribbons was messy. It was really hard to press the keys down all the way (if you’ve only used computer keyboards, try it and see) and, if your typing cadence was off, two or more letters would jam together just above the paper or your finger would get painfully stuck between the keys. The dictionary? Well, the darned thing was expensive, heavy, and not frequently updated.
But these drawbacks instilled a kind of discipline. Writers using manual typewriters had to think carefully before committing words to keys and to organize their thoughts to avoid wasting paper. The time it took to return the carriage after a line or to change a sheet of paper provided a moment to briefly reflect about what you were going to write next. (Now, we’d probably glance at a Blackberry in between.) Printed pages provided an automatic paper trail when rewriting so that a great idea, erased during a revision, was still available without having to remember to save the previous draft under a new file name.
And that tome of words? Back then, infrequently revised dictionaries were proscriptive rather than descriptive. They promulgated accepted spellings and definitions that had to stand a test of time and encouraged clear and consistent communication, rather than simply documenting the latest slang or linguistic fad of the moment. Dictionaries of that era had histories of words that deepened understanding of language as language evolved.
(This essay originally appeared on Frank Catalano’s FrankCatalano.com blog.)