Here is a book that hits all my buttons: It’s a book about circus; it’s a book about writing; most importantly, it’s a book about writing about circus!
David Lewis Hammarstrom wrote his first circus review at the age of 14, frustrated then – as I often am still now – about the lack of critical appraisal in a mainstream media that doesn’t know its circus onions, or in fan press that accentuates only positives and gives little sense of relative perspective. More than 60 years later, he is still pursuing his love for both circus and wordery, and Big Top Typewriter chattily guides us through the meeting points of these loves over the course of his life and career, from local newspaper print to press agent to academic presses.
There is a charisma to Hammarstrom’s writing that keeps me with him through meandering reminiscences that, at times, must be more clearly connected in his mind than on the page. It strikes me that this may be a book for the blog-reading generation, doing away with traditional autobiographical conventions of structure and direction for personality and flavour, as the author discusses his journalistic forays and publishing paths.
Having spent decades immersed in the classical circus universe – including trips to Russia and China, which each spawned chapters of their own – Hammarstrom is never short on knowledge or opinion. As he freely admits, however, spelling, grammar, and the finer points of detailed fact-checking often let him down. Although broadly trustworthy, Big Top Typewriter lets well-known dates and names go awry, which would make me dubious about quoting from it without further research.
A recurring theme in the catalogue of Hammarstrom’s book-publishing adventures is that of poor copy editors. And poor marketing teams. And poor business partners. And poor commissioning editors. Bringing these negative experiences to the fore gives some drama to Hammarstrom’s story of literary ambition and passion, but also lends a whiff of blame-passing. Nevertheless, Big Top Typewriter provides an eye-opening account of the various processes required to get a book into print.
Illustrations include ticket stubs and posters, while photographs from the author’s private collection of memories move from childhood sepia to contemporary colour. Other images have been donated; Hammarstrom has moved in the American circus world for a long time and has interviewed many of the top names in 20th Century production and performance.
Big Top Typewriter is a unique take on the circus autobiography. Not great literature, but a highly enjoyable read, even if your buttons aren’t as finely tuned to the topic as mine.