Illustration by Loveday Pride
There is something special about a typewriter. I can only imagine the feeling that people must have gotten writing on them when they were first invented: slowly applying pressure to the keys, seeing that letter launch itself at the paper, the ping as you get to the end of a line, the scraping whoosh of the carriage return. And despite the advancement of technology to computers and lightweight laptops, typewriters have continued to keep their charm. Now they are imbued with the popular feeling of vintage nostalgia. So when a book is dedicated to these same writing machines and this same magic, surely it’s a safe bet for a win.
You’d think that a Hollywood legend, the “nicest guy in Hollywood”, a beloved household name, a two-time Oscar winner, an acclaimed actor/screenwriter/director/producer, and everyone’s favourite animated cowboy toy could do no wrong. I am, of course, talking about the one and only Tom Hanks, and in most cases you’d be right. As Forrest Gump, this icon once famously said: ‘Life is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re going to get’. This wise man has blessed us with more than one sage remark over the years, so you have no idea how awful I feel in writing that I quite simply hated Hanks’s anthology of short stories, Uncommon Type. To paraphrase some of Woody’s iconic words in Toy Story, ‘that wasn’t writing… that was failing with style’.
In case you haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m really rather fond of reading books and writing. Naturally, as soon as I caught wind that Tom Hanks (!) had written a book (!!) about typewriters (!!!), it felt like the stars had aligned and everything in my life was finally going right. I believed in Uncommon Type so much that I carried it around with me everywhere for weeks in anticipation of finally getting down to reading the first page. I usually don’t advocate for reading the introductions and forewords in books (cue my tutors’ fits of anger and panic), but Hanks’s is beautifully written. It is engaging, interesting, and unique, detailing his hobby of collecting typewriters and how he maintains them by using them for their born purpose instead of as just ornaments. So far so good.
Unfortunately, the magic of typewriters was clearly not enough to save Hanks’s mediocre stories. There are several things that contributed to my disillusionment – the main one being that I expected to read stories with typewriters at the centre of them. To me, it seemed more as though I were reading short stories where a typewriter was awkwardly added in during the editing process. I didn’t find any cohesion, or even relevance, in the role of the typewriters to the plot of the stories. Moreover, Hanks’s writing style is not for me. Sometimes it read laboured, other times I was completely lost at what actually was going on or which character was speaking. But perhaps the worst thing for me was the text speech of the supposed “youth” (aged in their 20s and 30s) who wrote as if they were in a teenage chic flic from the early 00s IF U NO WOT I MEAN BROZ <3 😉. And after recovering from my initial shock of Hanks dropping the F-bomb with wanton abandon, the anthology just felt grossly underwhelming.
In his defence, there was one of the seventeen stories that I absolutely adored: a story of brotherhood and friendship set in the mid-20th century that warmed my heart. Hanks’s writing was poignant and evocative, and the tale’s vividness was great proof of his indisputable talent in the film industry. Indeed, I would love for it to be adapted into a short or even feature-length film, where the characters could be explored in more depth instead of being left in their two-dimensional state.
Uncommon Type had me confused, because it was clear that Hanks has writing talent, but the marriage of his style, with mostly uninteresting plots and predictable typewriter twists left me feeling nonplussed. All in all, my disappointment in Hanks’s oeuvre was a combination of writing that was clearly not my cup of tea and me not managing my expectations when embarking upon this book. A quick glance on Goodreads will prove that listening to the audiobook, narrated by king Tom Hanks himself, left people with a much more favourable opinion of the book. Perhaps his dulcet tones managed to compensate for the flaws in his writing.
So what of the magic of typewriters? Their power is in no way diminished in what I believe to be a great idea, but a poorly executed one, on Hanks’s part. Despite not enjoying Uncommon Type, I did feel a poignant frisson when I discovered that Hanks wrote each story on the same typewriter that features in it. Ultimately, typewriters are machines of creation that facilitate us to express ourselves and share our thoughts and stories with the world. The invention of computers and laptops have not undermined the significance of typewriters. You can research, directly communicate with people, play games, listen to music on them… Typewriters remain unadulterated in their singular purpose. In the very physical existence of Uncommon Type, Hanks captured the very essence of typewriters and attempted to harness their magic. Whether or not he succeeded is up to you to decide.