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