Booktalk: The Iron Whim by Darren Wershler-Henry

Fresh Ribbon

Note: I finished this one a few weeks ago and was promptly buried underneath piles of freshman essays. Tomorrow I’ll be buried under final exams, so there’s this window and I’m jumping through it.

I’m going to give it to you straight – The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting has its moments, but is overall Strikethru was right – it’s a bit academic for casual reading. Given that it’s published by Cornell University Press and that the acknowledgments page thanks his graduate committee for their help, it’s likely The Iron Whim is a post-thesis incarnation. It’s meant for a different audience and for a much different purpose.

Regardless, I found some bright spots. The chapters on “amanuesis,” for example (typewriting and dictation) and the women who, like ghost-machines themselves, entered the work force for paltry wages and changed the definition of “women’s work” long before World War II did that in a more permanent way. Good stuff. Men created and women translated. While much is written about business writing and the office-proper, I was much more interested in the discussion of Dracula and how Mina crosses that create/translate line in the novel first by using the typewriter to make her own voice, then by becoming demonic. Nothing like a good techno-feminist reading to make me feel my literary oats again.

On the whole I found the book just as fragmented as the subtitle suggests. All the better to skim and pick, actually. There’s a section on machine history that didn’t interest me, and the end of the book fell into a hole or two discussing contemporary readings in children’s and sci-fi typewriter-themed books. Not my cup of tea, really. There’s a chapter early on that discusses Ebay and the cult of nostalgia that should certainly make most of us wince, but in a good way.

We are who we are.

In the end, I didn’t fly through The Iron Whim anticipating the next chapter, but it was perfect for recuperative, post-knee-surgery reading. I’ve honestly spent more time with the bibliography than with the book itself, but I’m funny like that.

Wershler-Henry has an online place, by the way, and he Twitters. Let’s just say he’s been formally introduced to typecasting now. And that’s a good thing, because at the end of The Iron Whim he’s made a sort of promise I’d like to see him keep:

“…there are other books to be written about typewriting. At least one of them will be about typewritten concrete and visual poetry, because I’ll be writing that next…”

So, hows that new one coming along, Darren? No pressure.