Brain Pickings

Gay Talese’s First Mac: The Godfather of Literary Journalism on His Secret Love of Typography

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The writing craft between an Olivetti typewriter, 512 kB of memory, and a pad of yellow legal paper.

Great writers seem to hold the physical act of writing with especial reverence — Susan Sontag with her soft spot for felt-tip pens, Mary Gordon with her love of notebooks and writing by hand, Maya Angelou and her blue pencil. That’s precisely why it’s at once disorienting and delightful to find out that Gay Talese — godfather of literary journalism, sage of the writing craft, chronicler of New York’s cats, man of creative discipline — harbors a secret passion for typography. In A Writer’s Life (public library), he recounts the story of how he acquired his first Macs, propelled by the love of typography — an anecdote particularly poetic given Steve Jobs himself famously revolutionized personal computers after accidentally dropping in on a calligraphy class at Stanford and falling in love with typography.

Gay Talese at his typewriter

Talese writes:

Although my portable Olivetti manual typewriters purchased during the 1950s are dented and wobbly after my having hammered out more than a million words through miles of moving ribbons (I have also secured several loose letters to their arms with threads of dental floss), I nonetheless continue to use these machines at times because of the aesthetic appeal of their typefaces, their classical configuration imposed upon each and every word.

But he was soon swayed to the dark side:

In 1988, influenced by writer friends who claimed that it is easier to write when using a word processor, I acquired two Macintosh 512Ks at a discount price through my publisher and subscribed to introductory courses in the new technology offered by various young college-educated people who made house calls and seemed to have no career ambitions of their own.

[…]

Often I saw myself as a Luddite, an old-fashioned, stagnating reactionary — and I particularly felt this way when I was in the company of fellow writers who raved aloud about their newly acquired “state-of-the-art” computers that were practically writing their books for them; even my wife, with whom I presumably shared a time-honored belief in the enduring value of slowly evolving, painstaking literary labor, was now smitten with the speed and facile efficiency of the cutting-edge technology available in her office and that she herself embraced with the devotedness and blithe sense of discovery often associated with late-in-life religious converts.

Macintosh 512K, introduced on September 10, 1984, at $2,795; memory: 512 kB; discontinued: April 14, 1986.

Armed with Macs for Dummies and a plethora of peer pressure, Talese set out to decondition his Luddite tendencies and fall in love with his new Macs. But it didn’t take long for Moore’s Law to burst the romance bubble as the 512Ks soon became near-obsolete. So, Talese upgraded, once again motivated in large part by his love of typography:

In 1992, however, about four years after I had bought the 512Ks — which, incidentally, I had recently recrated in their original boxes and stored under my desks — I finally did invest in a pair of au courant computers, the Macintosh IIci. Motivating this purchase to some degree was the substantial royalty check I had received that week from Tokyo, sent by a Japanese publisher who in the early 1980s had arranged for the translation of a book of mine about American sexual practices, which he predicted would become a perennial best-seller in his country because it would make the Japanese people feel morally superior. I first saw the Macintosh IIci while shopping for tennis balls in a New Jersey shopping mall. It was displayed in the front window of a computer shop, with a poster bearing the endorsement of a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of my acquaintance. The store manager allowed me to sit down and type for a while on a demonstrator model, and what I liked about the Macintosh IIci was, of course, its sizable screen (double that of the 512K) and also the fact that it offered a variety in fonts as bountiful as the ice-cream flavors at Baskin-Robbins.

Macintosh llci, introduced on September 20, 1989, at $6,269; memory: 1MiB or 4MiB, expandable to 128 MiB; discontinued: February 10, 1993.

Indeed, he remained mesmerized by the magic of type:

I continued to enjoy fiddling with the many Macintosh fonts as I composed, in varying type sizes and shapes, my personal correspondence, fax messages, shopping lists, folder labels, instructional notes to deliverymen, and the outlines for scenes and situations that might appear in a future chapter of my book.

But as the novelty wore off, Talese grew resentful of the planned obsolescence embedded in its proposition and found himself using the Macs less and less, returning instead to the joy of writing by hand:

Nevertheless in 1998, after one of my daughters’ friends who knew a lot about computers told me that my Macintosh model IIci was now a valueless antique, adding that Macintosh had just introduced the wondrous iMac — which was superior in all ways to everything currently on the market — my reaction to this young man’s information was one of unmitigated indifference. I had bought my last computer. The new technology got old so fast that it was constantly close to becoming a misnomer, I thought, but I reminded myself that this no longer mattered to me. I was now reconciled to accepting what I had experienced throughout my working life: Whatever serious writing I was capable of doing would be done most likely in my own handwriting, on a yellow-lined pad, with a pencil.

A Writer’s Life is excellent in its entirety. Take another taste with this peek at Talese’s daily writing routine.

Images: Macintosh 512K via Design History; Macintosh IIci via Wikipedia; portrait of Talese via Covenger & Kester

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