The Good Old Days? by
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When I first considered this prompt, I realized I had already written three stories that fairly heavily addressed the issue of life pre-computers.  Two are stories about how I did not learn how to type, and the third was about snail mail and love letters. However, I am reticent to re-publish older stories if I can think of something new.  Plus, I couldn’t decide which of these I would have republished.  So I am simply setting forth their links below for those interested in the full survey course of my views on the topic, but you will not  be responsible to know their contents for the final exam:

Not My Type

I’m Not the Type….

Love Letters.

For this week’s prompt, I just want to address whether I believe life — or at least my life — has been made better or worse as a result of the impact of computers on the two topics of those earlier stories: typing and letter writing.

As to typing, this is, to me, a no-brainer.  Life is better in the computer age.  First, we start with the obvious fact that computers have not eliminated typing (save for voice command apps that are still far from perfect), but, rather, have increased it enormously. That is the real irony of my typing stories.  I thought back then, for a variety of reasons, that this was a skill I could easily do without, and yet I have typed so much more, both personally and professionally, since typewriters morphed into computer keyboards than when I was a reluctant junior high school non-typist.

I am not sure if this increase in typing is more cause or effect, but the greater ease of typing on a computer keyboard is irrefutable..  Let’s start first with erasing and editing.  Anyone remember Correcto Type, White Out and erasable (in theory) Corrable Bond?  Slow, ugly, messy.  And tangled typewriter ribbons and having to replace worn out ribbons periodically?  And jammed keys? And don’t even get me started on making copies via carbon paper: loosening the platen (the typewriter roller), lining up the paper and the carbon paper just so, putting all those sheets neatly around the platen and tightening it, and then making sure you pounded hard enough to make the carbon copy(ies) legible.  Every time I push “print” on my computer, I think, not wistfully, of carbon paper.

Even more broadly, as a lawyer, I can say that the use of computers revolutionized drafting and editing legal documents.  And not just logistically, but substantively, too.  Back in the bad old typewriter days, if you had a 25-page brief and wanted to edit something on page 3 — say, insert an important footnote about a new case — you (or your poor secretary or the beleaguered overnight steno pool) had to also re-type the following 22 pages.  So often you would not even bother making the edit, particularly if you had a very tight deadline.  Were you to not make such an edit now — which, of course, requires virtually no effort at all — you would be guilty of legal malpractice.

To be fair, there is a counter-argument: the romanticism of typewriters. My featured image comes from the New York Times obituary in 2013 of Manson Whitlock, who died at the age of 96.  Manson was a resident of my hometown of Bethany and I was friendly with his two sons growing up.  But he was famous for a typewriter sales and repair shop in New Haven that he and his brother ran for years and years.  It was right next to the Yale campus and was the ne plus ultra of typewriter shops.  Here is Manson’s full, beautiful Times obituary for those who are interested.

The last lines of the obituary are particularly poignant:

“A man of sober reserve, Mr. Whitlock could wax uncharacteristically philosophical about his long, symbiotic relationship with his charges.

‘Has the typewriter remained in use because of me,’ he wondered aloud in an interview with the Yale alumni magazine this year, ‘or am I still around because of the typewriter?'”

And many others have waxed poetic about the magic of typewriters.  They marvel at their engineering and design, the distinctive sounds they make and, of course, the tactile effects of typing itself.  Most of these aficionados are famous authors who have stubbornly or nobly (choose your adverb) refused to convert to computers. And even Tom Hanks is an avid collector and has written an ode to typewriters called “Uncommon Type”:

                                                                         

 

So, yeah, I get it, I really do.  That said, feel free to call me a techno-fascist, but give me a computer keyboard to type on any day of the week.

However, I am far more of a romantic when it comes to the subject of my third earlier story: letter writing. Pardon, once again, my pretentious French phrase dropping, but there is some sort of  je ne sais quoi to letter writing that is not captured by emails.  It is presumably a combination of the personal handwriting, as illegible as it may be, the effort involved in writing and mailing and, in some odd way, the fact that it is not received instantaneously.

I was reminded of this magic just two weeks ago when I learned of the death of one of my mother’s closest friends in Bethany (and sort of a second mother to me).  I heard about this via emails from her two sons, who were among my best pals growing up.  Of course, I responded to them quickly via emails and said many nice things about their mom and even sent them both the lovely picture of our two mothers together at my mom’s 80th birthday party which I attached to my recent story about my “Tennis Mom.”  In other words, I said and did exactly what one says and does with a condolence note.  And yet it didn’t quite feel like enough for this sad occasion.  So I pulled out my fancy, and rarely used, note cards and wrote them formal condolence notes, even though I really had nothing more to say.  It just felt right.

By the way, for those of you lucky enough to never receive them from me, this is what my fancy note cards and envelopes look like:

                                                           

In a similar, nostalgic vein, I was tempted to write another snail mail letter to my high school girlfriend whom I wrote about in my “love letters” story.  (We have been in occasional and friendly contact over the years; she even attended an awards ceremony for me at our high school a few years ago, so it would not have been entirely creepy.)  But, for any number of pretty obvious and good reasons, I ultimately decided against it.  Plus, in what is a fitting ending to this story about the advent of the computer and the concomitant near-death of letter writing, I realized that, while I have her email address, I do not have her mailing address.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Good justification for the computer, John (certainly editing, as you point out) is so much easier, as is dissemination. But not as “romantic” as letter writing.

    For my snail mail story, I had been looking for a little binder of old stamps my dad gave me when I first went away to over-night camp. I didn’t come up with it in time for the prompt, but found it last week, while hunting around for stuff related to my 50th high school reunion, which happened over Zoom (another advent of the computer era). I marveled at the 1 cent stamp and the “air mail” stamp, which cost 7 cents! Different times!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. And thanks for remembering stamps, too — particularly from the days when they all had denominations on them, rather than just saying “Forever.” Do not ask me what the current value of a first-class stamp is. But for some reason, I recall that, at least in the mid-fifties, it was three cents and most of those stamps were purple profiles of George Washington. Ring a bell anyone?

  2. You may be right John about the more personal look of a hand written note, especially for a note of condolence, but I think the immediacy of receiving and then replying to a friend’s email is a big plus.

    And if you skip the emojis and the abbreviations, and your words are heartfelt despite the medium, then the message can, and should, be the message.

    And books vs Kindles? This former librarian says it doesn’t matter, just read something good!

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    I’m totally in your camp, John, regarding computers versus typewriters. I refused to take typing in high school, most likely because I didn’t want to receive a mediocre grade, which was something I regretted until using computers. While I am nostalgic about the loss of hand-written letters (and even greeting cards), my arthritic hands struggle with handwriting these days. Wish I could do thumbs typing on my phone like my grandkids. Alas, I hunt and peck there as well.

  4. Marian says:

    Great recap of typewriters and letters, John. Love the note cards, of which now I have very few, none personalized. Alas, in my first two jobs I was one of those secretaries who had to retype stuff again and again for edits as you describe, but luckily ad copy is a lot shorter than legal briefs (is that an oxymoron?). And I sure hated that carbon paper!

  5. Suzy says:

    Thank you for writing a new story instead of just recycling the old ones. There is always more to say on these topics! I love your featured image of Manson Whitlock, as well as the Times obit. And thank you for reminding me about tangled typewriter ribbons, platens, and carbon paper. As well as not making an edit on page 3 of a 25-page brief because it would require retyping 22 pages – although I became very skilled at figuring out a wording of whatever I wanted to add that would take up exactly the same amount of space as the material it was replacing. Now that skill is no longer needed, just like the ability to figure out how much room to leave at the bottom of the page for the footnote.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Yes, Suzy, I think we all developed that skill of “editing without expanding” to avoid the dreaded re-typing of subsequent pages. And adding footnotes on the edited page was a favorite trick, as you could usually fit more in a footnote. However, then you had to deal with re-numbering subsequent footnotes. All the stuff they didn’t teach us in law school!

  6. John, your story got me thinking. Unlike the days of yore, a letter typewritten today could actually be considered almost as personal as a handwritten letter, being just one step removed, certainly more personal than an email considering the extra labor, thought, stamp, etc.. Old technology/new technology. Along those lines, I’m taking a little trip up the coast next week and of course am taking my smart phone but also a couple physical books and my old Brownie camera. (Film just looks different, and if I’m lucky I get light leaks and other unintentional effects.) So…the best of both worlds. And now I really want a typewriter.

  7. This was a very engaging narrative and logical analysis of the interaction between technology and our experiences with communication and writing. You made your case and provided good examples all along the way. However, I was struck early on at your framing: “the two topics of those earlier stories: typing and letter writing.” “WHAT ABOUT LOVE? WHAT ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS” was what jumped out at me! You focused on word “letters” in the phrase “love letters,” but you avoided the other word. So: when will we get your analysis of whether our current communication technologies have made for better love relationships than in the past? Or were we on more solid ground with the old-fashioned, more time-consuming state of affairs with which we came of age?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dale, and good point. Since the prompt I was responding to was “snail mail,” my focus was more on the medium than the message. But, again, a good point as to whether the relationship itself was different — and, arguably, better — in that medium. That said, I’m not sure if a high school romance is a good test.

  8. Joe Lowry says:

    Word processors are a big plus of computers. I too did not take typing in high school, and I should have done that since most of my college papers were hand written. While I had good cursive skills, my roommate stated he raised his college report grades by typing them and doubling their length. I think he was right. However, I still love hand written letters, but I don’t get many.

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