Michael Gustafson & Oliver Uberti (editors), Notes from a Public Typewriter (Scribe 2018)
This is a tasteful novelty book, the kind you give someone for a birthday present expecting them to find it pleasantly diverting and maybe even in some way illuminating. I was given it as a birthday present back in March, and if I’m right about the giver’s expectations I can report that they were met.
In 2013 Michael and Hilary Gustafson opened an independent bookstore in the university town of Ann Arbor in Michigan, USA. As an offshoot of an enthusiasm of Michael’s and as a point of difference in the difficult world of independent bookstores (many having closed in Ann Arbor in the years before 2013), they put a typewriter on display with a sheet of paper invitingly inserted. The typewriter on the opening day was a light blue Olivetti Lettera 32, which sounds very like the one I owned in the 1960s on which I typed out the lyrics of every Bob Dylan song I had access to, so I understand the appeal. That typewriter and its successors (a public typewriter can only last so long, and typewriter repairers are hard to find) attracted a steady stream of typists who sat down to pound out witticisms, confessions, comings-out, proposals of marriage, memorials, poems.
The bookshop and its public typewriter became a much loved local institution. The meat of this book is a wealth of things typed there, ranging from, say:
Why does this thing
have a hashtag symbol?
They didn't have Twitter.
Dear ––, I love you and I hope
one day we can talk about things
when we are sober.
The typewritten fragments are punctuated and illuminated by short essays by Michael Gustafson. Graphic artist Oliver Uberti who designed a typewriter sign for the shop window is responsible for the book’s elegant design. Beautifully reproduced photographs are scattered throughout.
So yes, the public typewriter is a gimmick, the book is a novelty and a piece of self promotion – effective, because if ever I’m in Ann Arbor I’ll certainly look for the Literati bookshop. But there’s something moving about the image that stands behind it all of an apparently endless stream of people responding to the challenge of a blank sheet of paper, whether it’s to write ‘fart’ five times (and mercifully Gustafson gives us only one of presumable =y many who wrote things of that sort), or to make the typewrite the centrepiece of that peculiarly US ritual of the public marriage proposal. Having been involved in the Sorry Book Project a decade ago, and Penny Ryan’s Connecting Hearts Project in recent years, I am in awe of the way people can rise to that challenge and in love with the way a community can manifest itself through devices of this sort.