There’s a current vogue for histories of various objects of arcana, but Darren Wershler-Henry takes the genre a step further with a book that is not actually a history of the typewriter – books of that sort apparently already exist in plentiful supply – but rather a kind of semiotics of typewriting itself, within the context of the past 150-odd years of Western culture.
As the title confesses, this is indeed a fragmentary history. Wershler-Henry’s scope is wide-ranging and largely unfettered by chronology. He looks at the typewriter’s mechanical precursors, the current rage for typewriter nostalgia, the debate over the origin of the QWERTY keyboard, and the provenance of the phenomenon known as the “Type-Writer Girl.”
But Wershler-Henry believes that the act of typewriting poses existential challenges that go beyond its status as a mere mechanical innovation, and so the bulk of the book is spent looking at loftier issues. Of particular focus here are the relationships between typewriting and dictation – a tripartite process between dictator, amanuensis, and the typewriter itself – and typewriting and truth.
As well as being far too long, The Iron Whim, which began as Wershler-Henry’s doctoral thesis, suffers from an endemic humourlessness that belies the “whim” of the title (a phrase adopted from McLuhan). The author, who is also an experimental poet and former editor at Coach House Books, has produced a work that feels like a cumbersome scholarly exercise, never indulging the reader by stepping outside of its self-imposed epistemological straitjacket.
There are attempts here to mix things up, as when Wershler-Henry invokes familiar academic touchstones like Foucault, Jameson, Bakhtin, and Baudrillard alongside pop culture favourites ranging from The Simpsons to William S. Burroughs to Kerouac to the infamous aphorism about the typing monkeys. But often there are baffling, unelucidated statements like “Typewriting is rarely simple, but is never innocent.” It feels as if Wershler-Henry has overthought his thesis and in doing so has gotten stuck in a mire of self-reflexivity and presuppositions that fatally detract from the true nuggets of interest here.