Moveable Type

Writing in the LRB archive by Will Self, Alice Spawls, Jenny Diski, Jamie Fisher, Jeremy Harding, Hilary Mantel, Thomas Jones, Louis Mackay,  Daniel Soar, Lauren Oyler, Yasmine Seale and Ben Campbell.

Diary: My Typewriters

Will Self, 5 March 2015

For some time an urge had been growing in me to write on a manual typewriter. I didn’t know why exactly but it felt a strangely inappropriate lust, possibly a form of gerontophilia. I disinterred my mother’s old Olivetti, dusted it off, and resolved to type my daily word count, Blu-Tack the sheets to the scarified wallpaper of my Liverpool gaff, and invite the other residents up to view them.

At the Type Archive

Alice Spawls, 2 July 2020

It required a combination of strength and accuracy scarcely imaginable today to take a piece of steel as small as an ant and cut away the extraneous material to leave, for instance, this 9.5 point letter ‘a’. Even the most experienced punchcutters could only complete one letter a day: in 1818 Anthony Bessemer testified to an anti-forgery inquiry that it took him 12 weeks to finish a set of 61 punches.

To many Western eyes, the characters were so exotic that they seemed to raise philosophical, rather than mechanical, questions. Technical concerns masqueraded as ‘irresolvable Zen kōans’: ‘What is Morse code without letters? What is a typewriter without keys?’ A Chinese typewriter was an oxymoron.

Alphabetarchy: In the Kanjisphere

Lydia H. Liu, 7 April 2022

Hanzi script relied on concepts – pictography, ideography, logography – that the phonetic alphabet had superseded. The Roman alphabet, it was argued, had prevailed not because of its association with the British and American empires but because it was intrinsically superior to all other systems of inscription. Who in their right mind would argue against simplicity, efficiency and speed?

Short Cuts: Handwriting

Jeremy Harding, 8 November 2012

Heidegger fretted energetically about the impersonal touch of the typewriter. Still, that’s no reason to set off for the Black Forest with a rucksack full of virgin postcards. Compositions at the keyboard often have the fluency of the longhand draft, the letter, the note penned in haste.

Diary: Hilary Mantel meets her stepfather

Hilary Mantel, 23 October 2003

I look back down Woolley Bridge Road. The weight of the steaming typewriter oppresses my mother, she is trailing her feet, the man is trailing his feet too, his hands are on the bar and he is hindering. They lean together as they talk. Time passes I am sure, though I don’t have a watch. 

Short Cuts: Scrabble

Thomas Jones, 18 October 2001

In English, zo is not a very useful word. In Scrabble, ZO is the only eligible two-letter word with a Z in it: this makes it almost as useful as QI (neither, incidentally, is allowed in the United States). SQUALID in Scrabble may have nothing to do with DIRTY apart from an I and a D, but it has meaning nonetheless: it once meant for me 136 points (my best score ever, and much less than the 302 that the British champion Brett Smitheram – a student at Exeter University whose other hobby is bowls – once got for QUATORZES).

Negative Typecasting

Louis Mackay, 27 May 2015

‘Gothic’ or ‘Black Letter’ script was used by monastic scribes in many parts of Europe from the 12th century. Early printer-typefounders, including Gutenberg and Caxton, imitated handwritten Black Letter in the first moveable type. In Italy, Gothic typefaces were soon challenged by Roman or 'Antiqua' letters (which owed their forms to classical Latin inscriptions) and Italics; and in much of Northern Europe, too, Black Letter forms were largely obsolete by the mid-17th century.

Short Cuts: On @

Daniel Soar, 28 May 2009

The ubiquitous @, which had seemed so analytically secure, turns out to be engorged with potential meanings. That, presumably, is what people hope for when they sign up for Twitter: that they can be anyone, and in 140 characters or fewer can produce a digested version of whatever personality they choose.

Short Cuts: Internet Speak

Lauren Oyler, 7 May 2020

The internet’s contribution to language has been to give us more ways to communicate without saying anything at all :(


Ben Campbell, 5 October 2021

The Q’s dangling tail is not a recent problem, but dates to the first page of the first substantial book printed using moveable type in Europe.

Q v. K

Yasmine Seale, 16 October 2013

It’s unclear how Mustafa Kemal Atatürk came by his name (he tacked on ‘Father of the Turks’ after 1934; it’s still illegal for anyone else to use it), but as for romanising his initials, the story goes that he tried spelling it first with a Q, then with a K – and deciding that he preferred the latter, banned the letter Q from the alphabet.

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