Patience and Persistence With a Pedantic Printer
IN this technological age, I am committing the closest thing possible to sacrilege. I am using, even reveling in, a discarded technology. When I set out to publish my first book, I turned my back on the all-seeing, all-knowing beneficence of the computer, and opted instead for the messy but exacting art of letterpress printing.
Each page I print is hand-fed to the waiting jaws of a 70-year-old press. The press run I count, not in brightly lit digital numbers, but on raised metal letters that advance with the rhythm of the press. Each night, I come home with hands so deeply stained with ink that nothing will get them clean. But I am proud to display them as a badge of my dedication to this craft.
With modern, computer-driven publishing, you are dealing with two dimensions: the computer screen and paste-up sheets barely thicker than the final printed page. In letterpress printing, the third dimension is there with a vengeance. Just one chapter, preserved on about 100 small bars of lead, weighs 25 pounds. The entire book, all 130 pages, weighs over 500 pounds.
The fact that it's a weighty tome was made all-too clear one day when two shelves of type, containing three chapters, fell crashing to the floor. Since each line of type reads backwards, putting it all together was like doing an Arabic crossword puzzle. But for someone who's always been fascinated by the printed word, there's a deep satisfaction in being able to hold the type in one's hand and to place each line in a printer's form, ready to be inked and pressed to the paper.
The book, by the way, is a history of my hometown, Sacramento, Calif., written by an emigre who taught English and journalism at the local community college.
Working about one day a week, it took me two years to typeset the book on a huge, 3000-pound mechanical monster called a linotype. Developed in the late 19th century and used by most newspapers until the middle of this century, it is an ingenious but mechanically temperamental device.
It is awe-inspiring to watch this behemoth select, cast, and redistribute type. Letter molds squeezed together to form each line of the book's text are waltzed through a series of delicate operations. After hot lead has been pressed into the molds to form the raised letters, a huge arm descends from the upper reaches of the machine. It plucks up the line of molds and sends each one down its particular storage chute to rest with molds of the same letter.
One hardly expects a machine of this size, with its huge moving parts, to do such precise work. It is a little like watching an elephant dance a credible version of ''The Nutcracker.''
Things do go wrong, however. During my first few months of typesetting, I spent many hours crawling around the machine's base searching for letter molds it had inexplicably spit out. In what must have been an expression of contempt for my ineptitude, one day the linotype shot a jet of hot lead at me, hitting the back of my right hand.
As this is being written, I am involved in the lengthy task of feeding each page of the book into the press by hand. That's more than 30,000 hand-feeds. And each freshly inked sheet must be scrutinized for defects -- inadvertent fingerprints and spots caused by dust or lint -- and then stacked carefully, with a clean sheet in between each inked one.
Why am I using this time-consuming method of printing? In this hurried age, I am luxuriating in time, substituting my time and labor for the operations of a computer and an offset press. And so I have the satisfaction of knowing that each page of the book is all the more my work: the result of my labor, my attention to details, my decisions about ink levels, roller pressure, press speed, and dozens of other variables.
My reward is a pride of craftsmanship known to those who make their own clothes, pottery, or furniture. In an era when we humans are apparently being voice-mailed, computerized, and automated out of the labor force, making something by hand is a quiet act of rebellion.