Atlantic Monthly takes a look forward and back Stories: Scientist Freeman J. Dyson contemplates colonization of the solar system


Ian Frazier takes a romantic look at manual typewriters.

November 16, 1997|By Cynthia Dockrell | Cynthia Dockrell,BOSTON GLOBE

On the occasion of its 140th anniversary, Atlantic Monthly has put out a fat November issue.

Quite a few name-brand writers fill these pages, among them Seamus Heaney, E. Annie Proulx and Garry Wills, and the editors proudly remind us who its heavyweight founders were: James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe (I guess you had to have three names to get into this club).

With all this touting of quality, though, it's hard to understand how the cover story got to be a cover story.

Blame it on millennial fever. The Atlantic has decided it will look at the future in a series of articles over the next year or two. This first one, by Freeman J. Dyson, contemplates human colonization of the solar system -- a great subject, both timely and fun. But Dyson is a scientist first and a writer second. He has some wonderful moments but then he gets all dry and didactic. Sometimes it's hard to gauge his intentions: Is this science fiction, or is he really serious about setting up housekeeping on Mars?

A much more readable counterpoint to this piece is Ian Frazier's poignant profile of a man who loves typewriters. Just as Dyson's story imagines the future, Frazier's recalls a part of the past that died too soon. Martin Tytell, 84, fixes typewriters in his shop in New York, which is how Frazier met him, being a manual-Olympia user himself. Tytell's knowledge is awesome. Over the years he has converted keyboards from English into just about every language spoken on this planet, and he understands the serious attachment a person can feel to an old manual.

It's all about memory. Frazier reminds us just how much the world depended on these machines in the last big war; for him, the simple smell of a ribbon brings back his father's wartime letters and the Royal he typed on, and then the father himself.

It's hard to imagine a computer doing this, which is Frazier's ultimate point. As Tytell sums it up, "These other machines, computers and so on, even electric typewriters, they have a soul that's hooked into the wall. A manual typewriter has a soul that doesn't need anything else in order to exist -- it exists in itself."

Notorious introduction

Just what we need -- another flesh-peddling magazine.

At least this one isn't sexist, not in a marketing sense anyway. Notorious ("entertainment for men and women") is a gender-encompassing genuflection to hedonism. Falling somewhere between Playboy and Cosmopolitan in sexplicitness, it doesn't live up to its name. The most notorious thing in it is a Bass Ale ad.

There's a mildly interesting profile of Gavin De Becker, who shows celebrities how not to get killed by their insane fans, and writer Bruce Jay Friedman makes an appearance. You get the impression he agreed to write his little quips here either as a favor to the editor or because he felt like slumming it.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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