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Just His Type? Tom Hanks’s Mechanical Obsession
The Actor Shares His Hobby by Giving Away His Typewriter Collection, One Surprise at a Time
If you’re one of the very few people involved in professional typewriter repair, restoration, and retail, you might have trouble not getting your hopes up. All across the country, shop owners are reporting the reception of curiously similar packages.
“He’s just sending some people without notice,” said one recipient. “They’re just showing up on doorsteps unannounced.” Inside each box, lucky beneficiaries discover a vintage typewriter, wrapped in a green towel with a yellow Playtone logo, signed and bequeathed by actor Tom Hanks.
Hanks has been collecting typewriters since his late teens. He got his first at nineteen and eventually accumulated a couple hundred before intentionally whittling down his curated trove. What compels his fascination? He explained the appeal a decade ago in a piece for the New York Times. It starts with sound.
“Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK,” said Hanks. “A thank-you note resonates with the same heft as a literary masterpiece.” Compare that, said Hanks, to the nondescript, insignificant tap-tapping of a laptop.
On your laptop, type out the opening line of “Moby Dick” and it sounds like callmeishmael. Now do the same on a 1950s Olympia (need one? I’ve got a couple) and behold: CALL! ME! ISHMAEL! Use your iPad to make a to-do list and no one would even notice, not that anyone should. But type it on an old Triumph, Voss or Cole Steel and the world will know you have an agenda: LUGGAGE TAGS! EXTENSION CORDS! CALL EMMA!
As far as I know, my grandfather never used a word processor. Instead, a small, black, mechanical typewriter sat on a wooden desk to the side of his family room upon which he regularly hunt-and-pecked out correspondence.
My kid sister and I loved playing with it: the thwack, clack, clicks, and clunks of its various parts, especially the ding and slide of the carriage. The brittle, mechanical symphony was half the fun. (We also liked seeing how many simultaneous key strikes it would take to jam the typebars.)
the cadence of creativity. It’s the percussion of punctuation. That sound: you’ll get lost in it. It becomes a rhythm. It becomes a music that will not only tell you—and the other people in the other room—that you’re working, it will also spur you on to other areas of imagination.
As Hanks told CBS Sunday Morning, “If the drums are the backbone of any rock ‘n’ roll band, the sound of a typewriter is the sound of productivity.”
But there’s more to it than sound. Hanks also loves the feeling of typing. “The muscles in your hands control the volume and cadence of the aural assault,” he explained, “so that the room echoes with the staccato beat of your synapses.”
The tactility of typing is almost as satisfying as saying, “the tactility of typing.” The keys present a level of resistance particular to each make and model, and the act of hitting a key and watching the typebar rise up from its cradle to strike the ribbon, leaving its inky black impression, is stupidly enjoyable.
The mechanical, analog quality of the activity allows you to look at that crisp—if maybe off-kilter—Q, W, or E and say, “I made that.” I never have that thought when my iPad Pro throws up an unknown number of electrons in the shape of a particular glyph. I made that letter happen, perhaps, but I didn’t make that letter.
The typewriter’s mechanical nature also forms the tiny idiosyncrasies that define each individual device and the letters, sentences, and paragraphs they produce. “Every machine is as individual as a set of fingerprints,” Hanks told Taffy Brodesser-Akner in an interview. “Every time you type something on a typewriter, it is a one-of-a-kind work of art.”
Beyond sound and feel, Hanks loves the durable functionality of typewriters, their permanence. “This is what thrills me about typewriters,” he told Gabby Wood at the London Literature Festival.
They are meant to do one thing and one thing only, and with the tiniest amount of effort, maintenance, it will last a thousand years. Now that means someone could have typed out a receipt or a lease on it in 1935. Or someone could have written Slaughterhouse-Five on it in 1965. And in the year 3509 someone will write a story on it that has absolutely nothing to do with binary code and emojis.
Noting that the ink of a typewriter embeds itself in the fibers of paper, he said, “I like the permanence of what you create with typewriters, even if it’s got typos.” And his letters and lists do have typos. He just marks them out with a string of Xs and compares “such blemishes” to quirks of personality.
That sense of permanence goes beyond the typewriter or its product. Following a transient childhood of divorce, moving every few months, Hanks latched onto his typewriter hobby as something stationary, even amid his highly mobile adult years, something he controlled. After purchasing his second typewriter—he lost the first—he said, “Oh yeah, this is going to stay with me for a while. . . . I’m soothed by having it. I’m soothed by knowing that I can take it anywhere with me.”
This psychological attraction would seem to undergird all other considerations. Despite claiming the sound of a typewriter represents the sound of productivity, Hanks limits his use for workaday, short compositions: letters, lists, memos, notes, and the like.
Unlike my grandpa, Hanks does have genuine need of a word processor—and so he uses one. Excluding one story begun on a typewriter, Hanks’s short story collection, Uncommon Type, which features a typewriter in every story, sprang to life on a computer. “When real work has to be done—documents with requirements equal to a college term paper—I use a computer,” he confessed in his op-ed for the Times. “The start and stop of writing begs for the fluidity of modern technology. . . .”
And as Hanks has aged, his life taking more settled shape, his typewriter collecting has ebbed. He’s now giving away his beloved machines, one at a time, wrapped up lovingly and sent to someone he knows will value the gift, shop owners in Arlington and Philadelphia and Lacey Township and Stephentown and all over.
Someday, he says, he’ll be down to just one: an Olivetti Lettera 22, like this model below.
Postscript: Yesterday, June 13, 2023, the legendary Cormac McCarthy passed away at his Santa Fe, New Mexico, home at 89. Famous for such novels as Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country for Old Men, McCarthy wrote all those novels—in fact, everything he wrote between 1963 and 2009—on an Olivetti Lettera 32, not much different than Hanks’s desert-island model. He bought it at a Knoxville, Tennessee, pawnshop for $50. Five million words later in 2009, it auctioned for $254,500.
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