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Obsessing over Typewriters and Libraries

David Mamet once observed that writers are obsessed with office supply stores. The things these stores contain — pens, pencils, inks, paper — are the only visible proof of what we do.

I thought of Mamet's remark after seeing California Typewriter, a fascinating new documentary about the titular shop in Berkeley, California. Computers may rule the day (these words are being written on one), but they are, I think, essentially inscrutable: We don't know how they work, and God knows we can't fix them when they break down. The computer is a cross between science-fiction and witchcraft.

There's nothing occult about the typewriter, however. How it works is apparent. You push a key. The key slaps ink on paper and, letter after letter, words form into sentences. It's a supremely satisfying physical act, typing. You roll in the sheet of paper and start typing. The carriage moves. The bell rings . . .

Along with a look at the typewriter store in Berkeley, the film offers thoughts on the creative process from the late Sam Shepard; Tom Hanks, whose typewriter-mania is well-known; non-fiction author David McCullough; the terrifically annoying musician John Mayer; the intriguing Jeremy Mayer, whose sculptures built out of old typewriter parts are strikingly strange and objects of beauty; and others.

California Typewriter is well worth viewing — especially if, like me, you love the old machines. I have two of them, and I still drag them out on occasion. Here's a link to the NPR review.

Ex Libris: New York Public Library, Frederick Wiseman's new (and lengthy) documentary about the NYPL  is a less satisfactory cinematic experience. That I was looking forward to seeing it goes without saying; a writer is, first of all, a reader, and I’ll bet most of us have spent many happy hours in libraries, reading, thinking, writing, or just daydreaming. I have a particular fondness for the NYPL, having spent the better part of a year in its Rare Book and Manuscript Division, where I happily researched a project.

Wiseman captures lengthy fragments of activity in the Schwartzman Building on 42nd Street, but he also wanders into other, smaller branches. The manifold activities housed by the Library is staggering. We sit in on board meetings, talks by distinguished authors, witness performances at Lincoln Center, join in community discussions in Harlem — to name only a few.

For all its scope and length, the film seems slight. I don’t ask for a conventional narrative, but one should feel some sort of dramatic arc, and Ex Libris fails to deliver on that count. Here's a rather more positive take on the film, courtesy of The New Yorker.

There's something primal, something Proustian about libraries. I think about the one in my hometown in southwestern Minnesota. It was housed in something called the Nobles County War Memorial Building, which also contained, in the basement, various items of the Historical Society — samples of barbed wire, coonskin caps, flags with bullet holes and most terrifying of all, an iron lung.

I can see those shelves and smell the old books. I’m back in the mystery section. Stanley Ellin – yes, I've heard of him. Mystery Stories. Introduction by Ellery Queen. Hmmm . . .

— Joseph Goodrich

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Joseph Goodrich is an Edgar Award-winning dramatist whose plays have been produced across the country. His fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Noir Riot. His most recent play, an adaptation of Rex Stout's Might As Well Be Dead, recently closed a successful run in St. Paul, Minnesota.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you, Joe.

    I recently saw an exhibition of typewriters at SFO airport. I took LOTS of pictures.
    I saw Sam Shepard’s True West in the early 80’s downtown at the Public with Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle. The opening of act two began with a crashing metallic sound coming from behind the curtain. When the curtain opened, there was Austin (TLJ) beating a typewriter to’ smithereens with a golf club. Talk about primal!

    It’s nice to learn Shepard actually loved his machines.

  2. Joseph Goodrich says:

    Thanks, Patricia! I’d love to see some of those photos.