September 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Revert to type

By Andrea Goldsmith
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
How the pursuit of a vintage typewriter led to digitally disconnecting in ways beyond the clacking keys

A little over a century ago, E.M. Forster published “The Machine Stops”, a short story that depicts human civilisation sometime in the future. I expect Forster was projecting ahead several centuries, but in some respects the world of “The Machine Stops” bears a resemblance to Western societies today. In Forster’s story, the Earth’s surface is uninhabitable, and people live by themselves in their own underground room. Here, everything necessary for life is available, courtesy of the Machine. When you are hungry you press a button and food appears; when thirsty, another button produces a drink. When you want to sleep, a bed materialises, when you wish to wash, the right button will conjure a bath. If you are feeling ill, a thermometer, stethoscope and other medical tools will appear to test and diagnose, following which, appropriate drugs will be dispensed. The Machine, a product of human ingenuity, now runs everything and everyone.

Under normal circumstances, people do not meet in this world; everyone avoids “the terrors of direct experience”, and touch between humans is considered rude and disgusting. There’s plenty of company via a blue screen that links each person with thousands of others located across the world; additional stimulation comes via a huge and ever-increasing cache of 10-minute lectures that avoid all “first-hand ideas”. With so many friends and so much activity via the screen, people are kept very busy. Art and creativity have no place in this world, and nature – mountains, sunsets, clouds – is feared. People are happy to stay in their rooms. And why not? The Machine looks after all their needs.

I read this story in my 20s during my Forster phase – what a pleasurable plunge that was – and while I have returned many times to the essays and the novels, I’ve never considered Forster to be an aficionado of the short story. And I wouldn’t have re-read “The Machine Stops” if I’d not been culling my New Yorkers and happened upon an article by Atul Gawande about Oliver Sacks. It was in the September 14, 2015 issue. Gawande, a physician and writer like Sacks himself, had met Sacks only twice, but the two of them had regularly corresponded by letter.

Sacks, according to Gawande, never used email; rather, he wrote letters longhand with a fountain pen on quality paper. In a letter to Gawande, written in July 2015, just four weeks before he died, Sacks bemoaned the deadening effects of social media and referred to the Forster story.

So, because of Sacks and Gawande, I re-read “The Machine Stops”. And as I read, a longing grew for my old, portable Olivetti typewriter that, in a state of technological euphoria, I had packed up and taken to the Salvos years earlier. I was in no doubt that Sacks would have kept his manual typewriter as a backstop to his handwriting.

Being constantly digitally connected is like being on speed: fabulously energising but after a while it makes you feel sick and jittery. I desired slow time. I longed for a mind cleared of clutter. I wanted my Olivetti back. The manual typewriter, like writing letters by hand, is not an instance of nostalgia, so I reasoned, but a desire for deep, prolonged and ultimately fruitful thought.

The term “nostalgia” was coined in 1688 by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer. He meant it as a medical term to describe intense homesickness – yearning for an actual home, as against the more metaphorical contemporary usage. Nostalgia, fed by discontent with one’s circumstances and generally benign, has become a convenient distraction, like bingeing on TV sitcoms. A danger arises when longing for the past becomes a longing for the familiar, for the known and certain; when it is used to escape the demands and challenges and rambunctious unpredictabilities of human existence; when it is used, for example, by contemporary conservatives who want to return us to the 1950s.

I wanted my Olivetti back and nostalgia had nothing to do with it. I needed help to slow down. Having an Olivetti back in the olden days of the 20th century wasn’t the same as having a Remington or an Olympia or an Underwood. It was akin to driving a Renault, reading Borges, travelling to Peru, sitting through festivals of central European films. I was so taken by my Olivetti I made a tapestry of it. And perhaps this is the time to confess that my Olivetti was not actually mine. It did become so, but whether by fair means or foul, I would rather not say.

In inner-city Carlton, a block east of the University of Melbourne, is a shop called Elite Office Machines. Its window display is a jumble of typewriters and adding machines. The proprietor is Zeljko Koska, known as Tom. Tom collects, repairs and sells typewriters; he is one of the few remaining typewriter specialists in the country. He’s been operating from this location for more than 50 years, and yes, he said, when I phoned him, he had a portable manual Olivetti.

I drove to Carlton and found a parking spot right outside the shop – the parking gods are clearly partial to a manual typewriter. Tom had just finished checking the Olivetti he had in stock. I studied it. I studied the case. It was mine, my old machine; I was sure it was my machine. I couldn’t wait to get my fingers on it.

As it happened, fingers, hands, wrists, indeed whole arms were needed. I had forgotten the pressure required to press the keys of a manual typewriter, and the downward distance the key needs to travel before the letter strikes the paper. But the noise, that soothing yet driving clacking sound, it was writerly Bach.

I took a moment to think, to be sensible: as much as I wanted an Olivetti, I also wanted a manual typewriter that was comfortable to use. I tried a Brother Deluxe 750TR, a machine that would be a good decade younger than my Olivetti, and then a Triumph Gabriele 25, circa 1975. The Triumph was perfect. The clack was even more musical than the Olivetti’s, and there was a spring in the keys that delighted my fingers. I wrenched myself from the Olivetti – it was hard, very hard, but either I could capitulate to nostalgia or I could buy a typewriter that would better assist me in a slower, more meditative approach to work.

This happened a few years ago. In the intervening time, I haven’t used my manual typewriter on a daily or even weekly basis – just when I’ve needed to slow down, to think more clearly, to break through a block in the work. At such times, I also return to handwriting with a fountain pen (a Waterman, with a hooded nib). I’ve used the typewriter enough, however, to need a replacement ribbon, so I rang Tom (all consultations are by appointment). There was a recording: “The mobile phone you are calling is switched off or not in a mobile service area. Please try again later.” I tried several more times and received the same recorded message, and when I passed by the shop, I noticed a pile of unopened mail in front of the door. I worried that something had happened to Tom. To be blunt, I worried that he had died. I’ve reached an age when death is not uncommon, and Tom, who always insisted he would never retire, is a few years older than I am.

Tom is a Carlton identity, his shop a landmark, and if he had died it would certainly have hit the web. I googled him. The last entry was October 2022. The actor Tom Hanks had written to him (on a manual typewriter) and the ABC reported it. So Tom was definitely not dead less than a year ago.

I returned to the shop, and was pleased to see that the mail had been collected. But there was still no response to my calls, and I remained worried: after all, someone other than Tom could have collected the mail.

A couple of shops down from Tom’s is Elgin Printing. Julius, the proprietor, has run his business from this shopfront for 30 years. If anyone would know about Tom, it was Julius. And of course he did. He told me that Tom was visiting family in Serbia. He’d left two weeks earlier and Julius did not expect him back for a couple of months.

Google failed the test, but face to face with Julius in a real-world neighbourhood and via live, real-time conversation, I learnt all I needed to know.

The press-button, living-in-a-virtual-world, busy-yet-mindless life of Forster’s story has come to fruition. We speed along with Twitter (now perplexingly renamed X), Instagram, TikTok, Google search, iTunes, WhatsApp and more; we are as familiar with the wiles and workings of Elon and Mark as we are our own family. The pathways to information are easy, accessible, quick and so hard to resist. But the pile of information itself? A Google search would have revealed if Tom had died, but it couldn’t give me the narrative of where he was and what he was doing, it couldn’t give me the story; I had to leave my screen for that. And such a satisfying story it turned out to be.

The type on my Triumph is pale but legible; Tom is in Serbia with his phone switched off; Julius has out-googled Google. I sit at my desk, slide a sheet of clean paper into the typewriter, my pulse slows, the nerves in my stomach settle, and I think about how this story that began a few years ago continues today.

And in the stillness, lines from a Wisława Szymborska poem rise up: Every beginning / is only a sequel, after all / and the book of events / is always open halfway through.

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