Dusting the keys

Computer updates

According to Wired magazine, back in 2009 the typewriter belonging to Cormac McCarthy, an Olivetti Lettera 32, was put up for auction at Christie’s. The machine had been in his care for 46 years. He bought it used for fifty bucks from a pawn shop in Knoxville, Tennessee. He estimates he has typed five million words on it. Maintenance, he says, consisted of blowing dust out of the keys with an air hose.

I thought of this the other day while I was waiting for one of my computers to download the latest “system updates.” Sixteen of them. Two-thirds of an hour later, it was done. For now.

Sure the operating system says you can work while it’s doing its tasks. But the updates slow the machine down, especially if you’re in a public place that doesn’t have the swiftest wifi. And after you finish, it pesters you to restart, meaning you have to save and close everything. If you opt to restart “later”…well, let’s just say those programmers at Microsoft have a strange definition of the word later. Every few minutes it asks you again, interrupting whatever task you’re trying to complete, over and over, until finally you say, “$%!@#^?&!!,” give in, save everything, shut down, reboot, and stare into space for the next five minutes while all the new updates, which will be out of date in exactly one week, apply themselves…

…Only to be told that the anti-viral software now needs updating.

So now that chugs away in the background, slowing things down again. Meanwhile there’s a word processor fix that’s waiting for me. And RealPlayer or some other video app needs attention as well—I don’t know what they change on those things exactly, except that each time there’s always some video that used to play fine but which no longer does, without any increase in functionality that I can see. I grab a coffee while all this is happening, but the deluge of new stuff causes the computer to freeze, requiring another reboot. That interrupted the security update, which must now begin over…

An hour later, the machine has been rebooted twice, all sorts of new code is installed, and I’m staring at a blank screen that should be filled with words by now.

Mission not accomplished!

This is what I think about when I sit there watching my computer’s maintenance: I wonder how long it takes to blow dust out of keys?

Sure computers have made the writing process fast and easier. I can now make corrections on the fly, and White Out and ribbons with chalky correction strips are a thing of the distant past. (Good riddance.)

Still, we have not made as much progress as we think. We’ve given back a lot too. Autonomy, for example. Today, our machines tell us when they’re ready. We don’t tell them when to work.

Granted, if you have a Mac—and I actually do most of my writing on an iMac—it’s not as bad. Their updates are far less frequent, they aren’t always scaring you with “security breaches,” and when their machines do update, they tend to do it more unobtrusively. Microsoft is brilliant at flooding your screen with reminders of how hard it’s working. Apple figured out a long time ago that that stuff should be in the background, because the end-user doesn’t care.

But even my relationship with Apple hasn’t been friction-free. My current iMac is on its second hard disk, second fan, second graphics card, and third RAM card. The machine is four years old.

It’s informative to note that so many authors—particularly our most prolific ones—still use typewriters, and darned rickety ones at that. Woody Allen bangs out all his scripts on his very first machine, which is missing only the top that covers the spools. He says he’s never had a down day. Some pawn shop and antique store dealers claim the old manuals are making a comeback. Perhaps from writers who’ve gotten a few maintenance bills from the Apple store.

By the way, McCarthy wasn’t getting rid of the ol’ Olivetti to move up to a computer. No, a friend had just bought him another used Olivetti—for eleven bucks.


3 responses

  1. Loved this one, John. I grew up in Knoxville, TN, so I wonder if I ever passed McCarthy on the street or something, although he is the age of my parents. There’s something to be said for living a simpler life, minus all the distractions. At the same time, I really love being able to edit and move my writing around with such ease. It’s all trade-offs, I guess.


    September 20, 2013 at 6:26 am

  2. Maureen Owen

    I believe your girl Deborah Eisenberg is also not fond of computers and isn’t even on the internet.


    September 20, 2013 at 10:03 pm

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