52/100 — Making books

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The past two days here have been quiet because I’ve been away on a press pass.

Most of the time, sending a book to press means giving it to the printer to make magic happen, and trusting that the result will be good. Usually this goes well, too, and a few weeks later your finished book arrives at your desk, in a warehouse, and later (hopefully) on a shelf somewhere, as part of a routine process that, like most things we just accept, is actually somewhat of a miracle.

But sometimes, a colour book is particularly important, or difficult, and that’s when someone like me, or a designer, or an artist, visits the printer to make sure that the book comes off the press looking the way you’re hoping it will. That was my job this week. Colour books tend to be printed on sheets, which fold into sections. So as each section comes off the press, it’s taken to a light box, its ink densities are measured to make sure they’re consistent with the proofs and throughout the run, and someone (i.e. in this case, me) looks over it and approves it. (I can’t share photos of what I’m doing, but this is what it’s like.) It was a long, long day (as they tend to be), and I’m glad it’s over, but also glad it was done.

To be honest, though: this is not the fun bit for me.

This Wednesday, in between sheets to approve, I was given a tour of the factory. This is the fun bit. This particular company is a few hundred years old, so the building houses not only some fancy new machinery, but also traditional equipment, some of which was still in use only a couple decades ago.

In my job (and outside of it) I’m forever meeting people who seem to have no awareness of the many steps involved in making a book. I’ve been asked to make books happen within days more often than I can remember; as if printers only sit around staring at the wall until they’re given this one job, or paper grows out of the floor right where and when it’s needed. With all the progress technology has made in the past decades, producing books is still a physical process. Many, if not most books we see in bookshops today are still printed on offset presses. This means ink smudges, damaged plates that produce odd little blots; then there are boards that bend because of the weather and foil that flakes off because of the board, and all kinds of possible issues I can’t even imagine with my mere 5 years of experience. And then, of course, there’s the human element. (Making books would be so much easier if it weren’t for the people.) How so many books make it out into the world is a marvel, given everything that could (and does) go wrong. Seeing those old machines put everything into perspective a little. Imagine typesetting every page by hand. We’d have fewer typos, and much fewer books.

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Every time I visit a printer, I’m overcome with awe and envy at everyone’s skill.

I envy the customer service people with their many years of experience, who know the materials and have made the mistakes and can advise you on anything.
I envy the press minders, with their incredible colour vision and knowledge of ink and paper, these machine whisperers who know how to coax just that shade of green out of the roaring, sometimes hissing beast that fills half the room.
I envy pre-press and lithography, with their knowledge of colour and colour separation, who know how to best write the instructions for just that shade of green in the language of cyan, magenta, yellow and black.
And, leafing through the guestbook at the printer and reading the words of so many who have visited before me, I envy the artists who make the works worth printing, and the designers who arrange those words and images on a page. I wish I could do all of these things.

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Earlier this year I went to a choir concert that centred around the topic of reading. Their programme invited the audience to listen to the songs and reflect on ‘the role that books play in [their] life’.

I don’t know what kind of life I’d have without books. There not an aspect of it that I can imagine without them. That I get to be around them every single day is a little miracle in itself.