Thursday, March 29, 2007

Did You Know (DYK)?

I don't know about you, but I read to learn. The enjoyment of reading is inextricably tied up with the joy of learning. Even with fiction, I require that the author provide me with new information, or new perspectives on information.

When I recommend a book, then, it is because something in that book has met my "edification quotient." The EQ is a stable and useful, if not quite fully developed measure of the depth of a person. I won't go so far as to say it improves the character or quality of a woman or man, but I will venture that an improvement in one's EQ is a cause for celebration and any efforts to share the tool (the book, article, film, or song, the painting, sculpture, lecture, or photograph) that caused that improvement is an imperative.

Whew! That's the long way around to share with you a very brief tidbit from The Iron Whim. You'll recall we touched on it in yesterday's rather lengthy posting. Darren Wershler-Henry has compiled a very readable history of typewriting. It's not entirely a history of the machine itself, but rather, tries to capture the sociological and economic impact that the whole process of typewriting has had on our society, and in particular, our literature and culture.

You may think all of the above is boring, that it sounds like a lot of work. Nope. It's hardly breezy, but it is completely enjoyable and you'll feel your EQ rising with the turn of every page.

Here's a few of the DYK moments...

William S. Burroughs, he of The Naked Lunch, is an acknowledged master of 20th Century avant-garde literature, much of which was semi-autobiographical. The typewriter was an integral part of his ouvre, so much so that when director David Cronenberg brought The Naked Lunch to film, his Kafkaesque touch brought the typewriter into the ranks of horror icon. But did you know that William S. Burroughs was the scion of a major office machine family? We oldsters remember the Burroughs Company mainly as the makers of adding machines (soon to be seen at New Albany's Museum of Trade and Industry?). But Burroughs made a pretty fine typewriter for several years, and the younger Burroughs came to his fascination honestly.

Henry David Thoreau, the civilly disobedient transcendentalist philosopher and no mean writer himself, spent much of his career working in his family's business, which produced the finest pencils in 1840s America. But get this: "In drafting a list of essential supplies for a twelve-day trip into the woods (remember Walden?), Henry David Thoreau (pronounced like 'thorough') neglects to include the pencil with which he composed the list, and conducted his extensive journal-keeping...even though he had worked with his father at Thoreau & Company."

Now, let's just appropriate the following excerpt:

Consider the sentence "Amaranath sasesusos Oronoco initiation secedes Uruguay Philadelphia." (Not quite "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.") The meaning of this sentence has nothing to do with the normal logic of syntax and everything to do with the logic of how letters appear on a typewritten page. It was usually the first thinng ever typed on each new typewriter, and its sole function was to check the alignment of a typewriter that had just rolled off the production line before it was shipped. Unlike most sentences, it was rarely spoken, (duh!) and no one particularly cared what it might mean in the conventional sense.

How does it work? "Amaranath," the misspelled name of an imaginary flower, checks the alignment of the vowel "a" between a number of common consonants. "Oronoco" checks the "o" key, while "secedes," "initiation," and "Uruguay" check three vowels that are among the most commonly used of all letters, "e," "i," and "u." "Sasesusos" not only compares four of the five vowels in the same word against the baseline of the letter "s," but also "includes several of the most common letter combinations in twentieth-century business English." "Philadelphia" checks the horizontal alignment of "i" and "l," the narrowest letters on the keyboard.
How's your EQ now?

The Iron Whim: The Fragmented History of Typewriting by Darren Wershler-Henry
ISBN 9780801445866 March 2007 Cornell University Press (Hardcover) $29.95 331pp.

1 comment:

Ken Weber said...

Hi Randy!
Commenting on a blog page is the last thing I ever anticipated doing, but I must tell you and anyone who is interested that your NA Books Daily is a marvelous undertaking and for that I commend you. Your knowledge of books--as well as people and institutions--astounds me. More than that, your energy and imagination makes you a sparkplug that ignites more complacent personalities.
What you and Ann have given to the charm and character of New Albany is inspiring. I've seen many well managed and inviting operations, but I haven't seen too many lately. Destinations is an oasis of serenity and culture. Every time Mary and I visit, we encounter new materials and initiatives that energize us.
Today's discussion of The Iron Whim reminded me that the most valuable college class--the one that served me well in the real world--was Typing 101.
We writers, as well as bookstore owners, rarely receive feedback that is more than superficial. I hope this comment will serve to energize you should you ever question the value that you, Ann and Destinations contribute to this entire region.
Best wishes and ill-legitimus non carbrundum!