Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law on "cool"

Every writer knows the coolest journalist in the world is Joan Didion.

Didion was a member of the New Journalism vanguard, the pioneering set of writers that included people like Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. Together, they revolutionised how we read and write non-fiction. Without them, you wouldn’t have writers like Susan Orlean or Jon Ronson. In her essay anthology The White Album, Didion detailed the changing face of America in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and included a list of all the things she would pack if she was hitting the road for an assignment.

She wrote:

    To Pack and Wear:

    2 skirts / 2 jerseys or leotards / 1 pullover sweater / 2 pair shoes / stockings / bra / nightgown, robe slippers / cigarettes / bourbon / bag with: shampoo, toothbrush and paste, Basis soap, razor, deodorant, aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax, face cream, powder, baby oil

    To Carry:

    mohair throw / typewriter / 2 legal pads and pens / files / house key

Didion added: “Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

Pre-internet, pre-laptop, pre-smartphone journalism was a different beast then. It’s insane to think that writing longform journalism – the kind of work I do now – warranted hauling around a typewriter that would’ve been several kilograms. In 2013, after a day on assignment, my routine is to open my Macbook Air, upload the MP3 interviews I’ve recorded on my Sony dictaphone and transcribe the notes from my Moleskine notepad. All up, my portable office weighs just over a kilogram. 

Still, I’m old enough to remember the gradual introductions of new technologies: the first dial-up modem; the first affordable computers; the first mobile phones that didn’t way a tonne. For a long time, I used to carry micro-cassette dictaphones that were about the size of two iPhones taped back to back. Journalists older than me will tell you bout manual typewriters, teletype machines and how, because dictaphones were either rare or cumbersome, shorthand was a necessity, not just a neat party trick. All the technology I use now—my MacBook Air, my iPhone—consolidates decades, even centuries, of technology that came before it: teletype machines, typewriters, notebooks, phones.

That, in itself, is its own kind of cool.


About Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is a Brisbane-based writer and a frequent contributor to frankie, The Monthly, Qweekend and Good Weekend. He has written for over 50 Australian and international publications (including The Australian Financial Review, The Big Issue, Smith Journal, Sunday Life, Crikey and Travel and Leisure: South East Asia) and has been anthologised in The Best Australian Essays twice. His debut book The Family Law (2010) was shortlisted for Book of the Year at the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIAs). Gaysia, his second book, is out now.