Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dragons of the World, Unite

Sharon Wildwind

As she does every year, Zorina, the labor negotiator for our stuffed animal collection, delivered her Labor Day speech yesterday morning. A hootenanny of songs like Joe Hill, Bread and Roses, and my personal favorite, Working Man followed.

Lunch of stew, brown bread, and strong root beer (our temperance bunnies vetoed ale) concluded this year’s celebration.

As writers we spend a lot of time worrying about and working with people at both ends of the book chain. At the front end are research librarians, agents and editors; at the back end, advertising departments, book sellers, and library purchasers.

In between that spark of an idea that sends us scooting off to the library, and seeing our books in book shop windows and on library shelves, there are one heck of a lot of people to whom we don’t give much thought. And maybe we should.

Yes, there are eleventy-one electronic book versions out there — which you either love or hate — but today’s blog is about something else, the physicality of printed books. Ink shaped into little letters and absorbed by paper. Covers. Glue. Warehouse shelves. Fork lifts and pallets. Eighteen-wheelers. All of those textures and smells that people are talking about when they say that they love to hold books, smell them, fold corners down to bookmark their places, arrange them on shelves, or leave them in unstable, near-toppling piles beside their bed.

All of that physicality comes from raw materials, things that have to be cut down or mix up, transported, hoisted, assembled, stored, and transported again. All of that work is done by people who work with their bodies as well as their heads. People who labor, in the old sense of the word.

There isn’t a worker on my list that isn’t controversial. Considering the carbon footprint or the social justice footprint of even one book is enough to make you furious or want to lie down in a dark room. What I’d like to do today is thank those people who made my book possible.

Loggers made my book. So did paper mill workers and people who knew how to concoct inks and glues.

Typesetters and printers made my book. For a lot of my life, that typesetter had to work with cast hot-metal, in a room full of noisy Linotype machines. If you ever have the opportunity, watch the documentary Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu, by David Loeb Weiss and Carl Schlesinger. It chronicles the last day — July 2, 1978 — that the New York Times was typeset, composed, and printed in hot-metal type and the next day, the first day that computers took over those tasks. It’s a fascinating look at just how complicated it is to shape little letters, cover them with ink, and get paper to absorb that ink.

Warehouse employees packed books into boxes and boxes onto pallets, which were loaded on to eighteen-wheelers for truck drivers to drive across the country, and stevedores and merchant marines to transport around the world.

I’m raising a glass of root beer to all of you. Thanks, guys and gals. Well done.
Quote for the week:

You are never strong enough that you don't need help.
~César Estrada Chávez (1927 – 1993), farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist


Sheila Connolly said...

Can we feel a little less guilty if we respect and cherish our books?

Sharon Wildwind said...

I don't think we should feel guilty at all, but just like some people are starting to ask where their food comes from, and is there a better way to do things, I think we should start to ask that same question about anything we purchase, including books.

We have fair-trade coffee, why not fair trade books?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great post, Sharon--and we'll be asking our stuffed animals, especially the senior bear and the alpha wolf, how come they didn't make a speech yesterday. I've just been reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, which gives a sympathetic view of Thomas Cromwell, who was instrumental in making it possible for King Henry VIII to divorce the Pope and marry Anne Boleyn. It was all about the new possibility of printed books. People got killed for disseminating the Bible in English, but before that, most people had, for example, heard of Adam and Eve but not of St. Paul and other information that we take for granted. Literacy and books are still the gateway to knowledge.

Sandra Parshall said...

More and more these days, I think about the real, live human beings behind the products we all use. I don't use the self-checkout at the supermarket because I don't want to contribute to the loss of a single person's job. And the potentially enormous loss of jobs due to the rise of e-books and the drop in printed book sales worries me a lot. Since most e-readers are produced in China and other in Asia, we can't advise printers, etc., to retrain themselves for the technical jobs. Those jobs barely exist in the US. (And yes, I know that many of the big publishers have their books printed in Asia too. But the smaller publishers, such as mine, use US printers.)

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sharon, I'm intrigued by the concept of a "fair trade book." Let's envision what that would involve. First, probably, paper that is recycled or made from chips leftover from thinning or other sustainable harvest. Glues and inks: ecologically sound materials, like soy-based inks. Labor: good working conditions and a living wage. Transportation is the toughy b/c of our current fuel system and road structure. What else?

While I was pleased to discover that my book, like Sandy's, is printed in the US, there's nothing wrong with a global product, but I do think Sharon's triggering some important questions here.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Thanks for all of the perceptive comments.

Liz, perhaps none of your stuffed animals have Zoriana's shall we say--socialist--tendencies. I suppose you noticed she wears a red scarf when she makes her Labor Day speech.

That we all are thinking about and acting on not taking products for granted is a big step in the right direction. Sandra, I have to admit that I do use the self-service check-outs. I have this unrealistic dream that all of the check-out clerks will go back to school and get jobs that pay higher wages.

Leslie, your list matches mine. I think that a pretty good description of a fair-trade book.

J.P. Hansen said...

Thich Nhat Hanh begins one of his books discussing all that goes into the experience of reading, from the loggers to the factory workers, to the teachers who showed us how to write. He says that the book is an example of interbeing, as is all of life. Your post just made me think of it.

Jeri Westerson said...

In a college design class, we had to bind our own books. I'm afraid mine didn't come out as wonderfully as I would have hoped, but it does have carefully calligraphied pages, an illustration, and lovely end papers. It was an old fairy tale, by the way.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Jeri, this is one of my favorite quotes.

Handmade books are mysterious and unfathomable to most people. People assume books appear out of the ether on bookshelves. I have seen the look of disbelief when talking to people about how books are made by hand. Unbelievable—you make books?
~Steve Miller, bookmaker who combines text, image, and color in a contemporary drama