The world’s nicest man

Tom Hanks charms Portland

You wouldn’t expect the World’s Nicest Man to turn up at an obscure literary event. At the Portland Book Festival, on the other hand, an internationally known figure such as Tom Hanks does not seem out of place.

The new author appeared onstage Nov. 10 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in conversation with Parul Sehgal of The New York Times Book Review, charming the audience of nearly 3,000 for over an hour.

Sehgal kept Hanks talking about his book, his creative process and how 40 years in Hollywood prepared him for the rigors of writing. “The only thing that intimidated me about this was the actual workload, the actual process,” Hanks said. “The solitary job of writing something that you and only you can determine should go on.”

The literary world seems to approve of Hanks’ efforts. PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author Ann Patchett said: “Reading Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type is like finding out that Alice Munro is also the greatest actress of our time.”

The short stories in this collection feature the lives of immigrants, among other themes, and are superficially connected by typewriters. To Hanks—who owns 250 typewriters—the manual typewriter represents permanence in our time of planned obsolescence. “The truth is,” Hanks said, “it is unhackable, exactly as it was in 1922.” Judging by the applause that followed, the audience agreed.

When asked to give advice for writers, Hanks recalled screenwriters he’d met during his career. “Great,” Hanks said. “Got it. You did it. Fantastic. Go write another one. Go write something else. Keep writing. Never stop writing. Write, write, write.”

In what he called his day job as an Academy Award-winning actor and producer, Hanks has become part of our national identity and conscience. In Philadelphia, his role as a lawyer with AIDS helped make Americans more compassionate and less fearful toward people with HIV and AIDS; Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and The Pacific highlighted the accomplishments of the Word War II generation; and Forrest Gump encapsulated the Vietnam War era and the rise of counterculture. Hanks’ production company, Playtone, produced John Adams, as well as the documentary miniseries The Sixties and three follow-on series covering subsequent decades.

Hanks’ reputation as the World’s Nicest Man may be debatable, but it’s hard not to appreciate his overwhelmingly positive attitude in this age of rancor. “I think 90 percent of people in the world are good and fair and live by some version of what the golden rule is,” Hanks said. “You know, treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself. I think five percent are absolute assholes. But that’s a pretty good proportion. If you can get away with only five percent, you’re ahead of the game. And I’m gonna say the remainder—some people are just stark raving nuts. But 90 percent good people.”

If we could all feel that way about the world, we’d probably be nicer to ourselves and to others.

You know, like Tom Hanks.

Oregon Public Broadcasting will publish audio recordings of Portland Book Festival author appearances.