"What I had didn’t surprise me half as much as how I felt about it". Illustration by Karlotta Freier
A beautifully written 'Personal History' by Ann Patchett in the March 8 New Yorker, headed "How to Practice: Learning to Let Things Go", ends with a wonderful story about typewriters. The 'Personal History' itself is more than 5800 words long, but. cutting to the chase (for me at least), here are the last 1100 words:
My sister’s friend Megan and her eight-year-old daughter, Charlotte, came to visit as I was nearing the end of my project. Megan and Charlotte were driving a loop from Minneapolis to the Great Smoky Mountains and back, hiking and camping along the way. They were spending the night with my sister, and Heather brought them over to see me. By that point, I had only a little bit of the basement to go.
My mother and my stepfather, my darling Lucy, college, graduate school, all those stories—they made up the history of that typewriter. It waited on a shelf in the very closet where the dolls had been kept. When I was cleaning out the closet, I didn’t consider giving either of the typewriters away, but I don’t think I’d used them once since I got my first computer, when I was twenty-three. I took Megan aside. “I’ve got a manual,” I whispered to her.
In any practice, there will be tests. That’s why we call it a practice—so we’ll be ready to meet our challenges when the time comes. I had loved a typewriter. I had believed that every good sentence I wrote in my youth had come from the typewriter itself. I had neglected that typewriter all the same.
Kent, the cosmic monk*, had laminated his prayers. He’d laminated pictures of his daughters, his granddaughter, his dog. He’d laminated good reviews of my novels. After he died, Tavia found two laminated cards. One said:
Everything I Need
And the other:
is not Ladder
He needed both prayers in order to remember. We had tried the world on for size, Kent and I, and, one way or another, we would figure out how to let it go.
They were. I watched a video of Tom Hanks, that famous champion of manual typewriters, replacing a ribbon on a Hermes 3000. “No typewriter has ever been made that is better than a Hermes,” he said in a salesman’s voice.
Well, that was the truth.
That night, while Karl and I were walking the dog, I told him about Charlotte. I told him what I was thinking. “As much as I loved it, it would be wonderful if someone could use it. How many little girls are out there pining for manual typewriters?”
“So give her mine,” he said.
I stopped. The dog stopped. “You have a manual typewriter?” There were three manual typewriters in the house?
Karl nodded. “You gave it to me.”
I had forgotten. I had given Karl an Olivetti for his birthday when we were first dating, because I was used to dating writers, not doctors. Because I didn’t know him then. Because I saw myself as the kind of woman who dated men with manual typewriters. I had bought it new. Twenty-six years later, it was still new.
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
O.K., it wasn’t like that. But I had been ready to let the Hermes go, and now I didn’t have to let it go. There was another typewriter caught in the thicket.
When I gave the Olivetti to Charlotte the next morning, she thought I’d given her the moon. She had imagined herself as a girl with a typewriter. And now she was.
*Kent is the late father of Tavia, Ann's friend from early childhood. He's an inveterate gatherer of weird things.
Los Angeles-born Ann Patchett (1963-) received the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction in the same year, for her novel Bel Canto. Patchett's other novels include The Patron Saint of Liars (1992), Taft (1994), The Magician's Assistant (1997), Run (2007), State of Wonder (2011), Commonwealth (2016), and The Dutch House (2019). The Dutch House was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 2010, she co-founded the bookstore Parnassus Books with Karen Hayes and it opened in November 2011. In 2012, Patchett was on Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Karl Van Devender.