When new technology holds a writer back

1894 photo of Mark Twain in the New York City laboratory of his good friend, Nikola Tesla.

1894 photo of Mark Twain in the New York City laboratory of his good friend, Nikola Tesla.

Happy Birthday today to perennial FAB favorite Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain).  For those techno-geeky folks out there, Sam was the first person ever to write a novel on a typewriter. The year was 1883, the book Life on the Mississippi.

Of course, he’d owned the thing since 1874, and found it more trouble than it was worth, writing to the maker (in longhand!) in 1875 saying,

Please do not even divulge the fact that I own a machine. I have entirely stopped using the typewriter for the reason that I could never write a letter with it to anybody without receiving a request by return mail that I would not only describe the machine but state what progress I had made in the use of it, etc, etc. I don’t like to write letters, and so I don’t want people to know I won this curiosity-breeding little joker.

He’d paid the whopping sum of $125 for the Remington No 1 and claimed to have traded it to a friend a few years later for a $12 saddle, thereby “cheating him outrageously.” But one suspects, since he wrote a Life on the Mississippi on a typewriter, he gave up his early model No 1 typewriter in favor of a new and improved Remington No 2 which appeared in 1880 and had the impressive futuristic feature of . . . a Cap Shift Key.


Image number: 10308297; Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library; Date taken: 12 January 2004 22:33;Image rights: Science Museum

The Remington No 2 was the first commercially successful writing machine, selling over 100,000 units. And yes, that’s Remington as in rifles (So, one could say Remington covered its bets by producing both sword and pen!). Remington began making firearms (a metal and wood product) in the 1820s.

In 1873 Remington began the new venture, producing typewriters. Remington sold the typewriter business in 1886. The new owner, the Standard Typewriter Manufacturing Company, bought the rights to continue using the Remington name, and the firearms business became Remington Arms Company.

interestingly, because the type bars strike the paper from below, the writing on early model typewriters could not be seen until the carriage was lifted. The ability to see what one was writing as one typed had to wait until 1908 and truly wasn’t perfected till around 1920! Some writers continued with longhand not least because with longhand one could see what one was writing. (JK Rowling still writes her books in longhand, we’ve heard.)

Many well-known authors have used Remington machines. Dame Agatha Christie used a Remington Portable No 2 and a No 5. Raconteur Quentin Crisp preferred the No. 3. Nobel Prize winner in Literature Rudyard Kipling pecked away on a Remington Noiseless model in his later years. And a Remington Portable No.3 was one of the typewriters of choice of Gone with the Wind novelist Margaret Mitchell.

So how ever you choose to create your next great novel — traditional longhand or something cutting edge, remember, it’s the words that count, not how you get them on the page.

writers block
StiK – Cow Writer’s Block from a presentation on Writer’s Block Sometimes it’s the technology that’s holding you back!

Mark Twain, again

As readers of this blog know, we adore Mark Twain! And apparently, we are not the only ones. The new Univ of Cal Press “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1” ($35, 4lbs, and 736 page) is flying off the shelves.

You can read more about it in Julie Bosman’s NY Times review but the upshot is, people love books.  Real books.  The first print run was 7,500.  To date they’ve had to print 275,000 and they still haven’t kept pace with demand.  Do note, we used the word PRINT.  These are not ebooks.  These are printed hardbacks, and of a scholarly variety.

It’s shooting up the Bestseller List, and no doubt in part because Twain was such a beloved figure and such a genuinely American one.  Everyone loves Twain.  And Twain in unexpurgated form?  Could be speaking directly to American situations we face today.

Given all that, we’d totally disagree with Rebecca Fitting, who commented to the Times “It’s totally the Dad book . . . . a certain kind of guy gift book.” People who love autobiography, great writers, history, and quintessentially American Lit, come in both genders and all ages, parental status aside.

No doubt the marketing strategy also played a big part. Publications such as Granta, Newsweek, Playboy and Harper’s Magazine ran excerpt.  A burst of early media coverage this summer, well in advance of the official Nov. 15 publication date, also helped. The publisher also created an eye-catching Web site, thisismarktwain.com, complete with audio, black-and-white photos and a timeline of Twain’s life.



Editors of The Mark Twain Papers (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Whatever the outcome for this year’s sales, we wish University of California Press all the best with its best selling book in 60 years.  Congrats to everyone who worked on the editorial committee of the Mark Twain Papers.  We’re already looking forward to the release of Volumes 2 and 3.

Keep those presses rolling!

Published in: on November 22, 2010 at 6:39 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Everyday American Stories, how Samuel Langhorne Clemens set the bar, and who jumped over it

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the writer we consider the best of the everyday American tale tellers, Mark Twain. We’ve mentioned our love of Twain before, so we won’t bore you again. But . . .

Blogiful has a nice trio of Huck Finn picks, including one of a small display he set into a nook in his personal library. You know people have a passion for their library when they start adding tribute niches to their favorite reads and use exceptional quality metal sculptures to boot. Kudos Blogiful!

But back to Twain . . . or Samuel Langhorne Clemens . . .

Suffice it to say, if it were up to us reading Twain would probably be a mandatory step on the path to US citizenship for new immigrants, getting past High School Lit Class, and embarking on study for MFA’s in a creative writing.

Times change, circumstances change, cultures change, but there’s always something that rings true about Twain and resonates with Americans.

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 8:15 AM  Comments (1)  
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The Best American Novel? Ever?

Our Adobe CS4 arrived at last, so we’re reinstalling that.

Meanwhile, we asked the local library for a purely subjective answer to the question:

If you had to recommend an American Novel, from any time period, to give to a 15 year old, as an example of good writing (in usage, style, and substance), which would you nominate?

We were thinking maybe something by Mark Twain.

Our local library suggested To Till a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

With over 200 years of fiction to pick from, there’s just a wealth of choices. And the US is such a young country.  Imagine trying to have to pick just one for Italy, or Britain or China or India!

Published in: on September 25, 2009 at 5:24 PM  Leave a Comment  
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