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The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting Hardcover – March 8, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"Witty and idiosyncratic, this history of typewriting says more than one might think possible about the subject. . . . Wershler-Henry documents how the typewriter, once a dreaded totem of mechanization, has become an object of nostalgia, in a process that will surely repeat itself as technology advances. After all, as he writes, 'Typewriting died a violent death, and . . . violent deaths lead to hauntings."—The Atlantic, April 2007

"Among the book's many fascinating topics—America's early-20th-century erotic fixation on the Type-Writer Girl; the link between Remington's efforts to develop faster typists and the origins of domestic engineering, via the real-life protagonist of Cheaper by the Dozen; the mathematical formula proving that no number of monkeys could randomly peck out 'Hamlet'; the 2004 flap over the special characters used on a typewritten memo purporting to show that President Bush received preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard"The most persuasive is the persistence of the eerie feeling that we're not alone when we sit at the typewriter."—Josh Glenn, New York Times Book Review, May 6, 2007

"Although he sketches in the mechanical evolution of the machine, and the industrial world around it, Wershler-Henry is never reluctant to leave the historical nuts and bolts behind. His larger interest is in the cultural and theoretical resonances of typewriting, and he considers them in an impressively wide-ranging, virtuoso performance which often has a rather Gothic air about it."—Phil Baker, Times Literary Supplement, June 1, 2007

"The Iron Whim should delight all who love typewriters and who appreciate the long, if somewhat rattly, contribution they have made to literacy and general culture."—Larry McMurtry

"The Iron Whim is a pure delight. This 'fragmented history of typewriting' provides fascinating glimpses into the history, culture, and poetics of the typewriter, that instrument that controlled our writing for so many decades and for which nostalgia is currently at a high point. Himself a poet and critic, Wershler-Henry recounts, with great panache, how the typewriter works of such writers as Henry James and Charles Olson were actually produced. The role of the amanuensis, the dictation process, the production and reception of typed text: all these topics, clearly and vividly detailed, ensure the wide reception The Iron Whim is sure to get. I cannot imagine a reader who would not find this book intriguing and compelling."—Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University, author of Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

"I have been waiting years for just such a book on the cultural imagination of the typewriter, and Darren Wershler-Henry makes the wait well worthwhile. The Iron Whim combines historical rigor, theoretical sophistication, and an amazing breadth of literary knowledge from the canonical to the avant-garde—not to mention a palpable sense of mischievous fun. Wershler-Henry, one of today's most provocative scholars and poets, undertakes this medial archaeology with unerring precision: revealing the most surprising arcana to be central to our cultural history and making the most familiar facts of the modern writing machine seem suddenly new and strange and extravagantly unlikely. This book is necessary, intelligent, and fun."—Craig Dworkin, University of Utah, author of Reading the Illegible

"Who connects the typewriter with vampires, ghosts, sex, drugs, and money? Poet, theorist, and culture critic Wershler-Henry, has produced a surprising book that is nothing short of a cultural history of the complex writing machine. Richly researched, the text is composed with élan and wit. A must-read for students of contemporary literature, media studies, and anyone interested in the interconnections of modern life and technology."—Johanna Drucker, Robertson Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia

From the Back Cover

"The Iron Whim should delight all who love typewriters and who appreciate the long, if somewhat rattly, contribution they have made to literacy and general culture."--Larry McMurtry

"The Iron Whim is a pure delight. This 'fragmented history of typewriting' provides fascinating glimpses into the history, culture, and poetics of the typewriter, that instrument that controlled our writing for so many decades and for which nostalgia is currently at a high point. Himself a poet and critic, Wershler-Henry recounts, with great panache, how the typewriter works of such writers as Henry James and Charles Olson were actually produced. The role of the amanuensis, the dictation process, the production and reception of typed text: all these topics, clearly and vividly detailed, ensure the wide reception The Iron Whim is sure to get. I cannot imagine a reader who would not find this book intriguing and compelling."--Marjorie Perloff, Stanford University, author of Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary

"I have been waiting years for just such a book on the cultural imagination of the typewriter, and Darren Wershler-Henry makes the wait well worthwhile. The Iron Whim combines historical rigor, theoretical sophistication, and an amazing breadth of literary knowledge from the canonical to the avant-garde--not to mention a palpable sense of mischievous fun. Wershler-Henry, one of today's most provocative scholars and poets, undertakes this medial archaeology with unerring precision: revealing the most surprising arcana to be central to our cultural history and making the most familiar facts of the modern writing machine seem suddenly new and strange and extravagantly unlikely. This book is necessary, intelligent, and fun."--Craig Dworkin, University of Utah, author of Reading the Illegible

"Who connects the typewriter with vampires, ghosts, sex, drugs, and money? Poet, theorist, and culture critic Wershler-Henry, has produced a surprising book that is nothing short of a cultural history of the complex writing machine. Richly researched, the text is composed with élan and wit. A must-read for students of contemporary literature, media studies, and anyone interested in the interconnections of modern life and technology."--Johanna Drucker, Robertson Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (March 7, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801445868
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801445866
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.8 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,640,390 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I heard an interview with the author on NPR which was fascinating. Unfortunately that did not carry over to his writing style. I found this book to be a bit like reading a stream-of-conciousness history of typewriting. It seemed that whatever entered the author's mind was then placed on a page with no logical progression. I also felt the book covered very odd things that had very little to do with typewriting, like an entire section devoted to rambling about EBay and random typing knick knacks. Overall I was very disappointed when I had been hoping for so much more.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By I. Kant on November 6, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is an awful book! It is not a history, but a random haphazzard discussion of "the typewriter as discourse".

I really wanted a good social history of the typewriter. I wanted to read about the science, economics, business, and politics that created it and vice versa. But this is a sort of stream-of-consciousness meandering of seemingly random thoughts about the typewriter, people who wrote about typewriters, people who used them in various ways.

It makes little sense, seems highly contrived, and I really very amazed that the respected Cornell Univ. Press would publish this. They must owe this guy.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on April 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This work is about a fascinating subject, especially I suspect to all those who have known the transition, first from the handwriting to the typing , and then from the typing to the word- processor modes of human expression. Wershler- Henry is interested in revealing to us the way the parts of the machine work together, and as he indicates the way to do this is to look at them when they have been discombobulated, when they are taken apart and seen not as the height of progress and invention, but as mere random pieces put together. Even more importantly he tells us his goal in writing this book is " to understand how typewriting shaped and changed not only Literature, but also our culture and sense of ourselves".

He ranges over a wide variety of subjects and includes descriptions of how the typewriter influenced the writing lives of some of the great literary masters. He too surveys what the change from the relatively harder - work of typewriting to the smooth more soundless touch of computer keys means for us.

His chapters are interestingly titled for example: Typewriting and Dictation, Typewriter Nostalgia, , Typewriting and Speed, Typewriting and Discipline, Writing Blind, Poet's Stave and Bar, Typewriters at War, Typewriting After the Typewriter.

He certainly tells us more about 'typewriting' than we who for years stabbed and banged on our favorite instrument could have ever understood of its complexity and significance.

Ah for my old Smith- Corona .
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Format: Hardcover
Did you know that in 1857, Dr. Samuel Ward Francis invented a "printing machine" that looked like an abbreviated piano keyboard attached to a huge daisy wheel? You can find it on p. 58 in the book.

Did you know that in the early days of typewriting, it was the humans, not the machines, that were known as "typewriters"? Wershler-Henry devotes several chapters just to the concept of dictation and amanuensis (look it up).

Did you know that the concept of double-spacing after a period in a sentence can be pretty much ignored now, in this age of word processing? It's because characters in most word processing font types are proportionally spaced (not so in the old typewriters). So now, when you type a long paragraph in Word, for instance, you might notice what's called "rivering", as typographers call it -- the tendency for a stream of white to gulley down a page where all the doublespaces gather. Because we're adding space where it's no longer needed.

Did you know that in the 1960s, Elisabeth Mann Borgese (daughter of Thomas Mann) taught her beloved English Setter (Arli) to "type"? He got up to a vocabulary of 60 words, using 17 letters. He even got to the point where he was communicating simple feelings about himself. Or so she imagined. You'll find his cute picture in the book, punching big oversized letter keys with his nose.

Did you know that an experiment with a zillion chimpanzees typing several months non-stop eventually produced a real typewritten word? (It refers to one of our favorite holidays.) There was more. It had to do with Shakespeare... and Hamlet.

This book has other fun tidbits, including glimpses at non-QWERTY keyboard configurations that failed to take off, such as the "Dvorak Simplified" keyboard.
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