My father, Roy Friedlander, apprenticed in the printer’s union right out of high school. He spent years becoming a journeyman printer, learning the skills of the 1930s and 1940s. For years he went from one department to another, learning everything in the print shop.
The war interrupted, and Roy came back a different man, but he returned to the printing trades, eventually ended up as a Compositor before going into management.
A Compositor was the guy who actually made up the type forms for printing in a commercial print shop. Someone would set the type, either on a Linotype line caster, or from hand type. Someone else created the “cuts” or copper images that would add artwork to the forms. All in all there was a lot of hand work.
And that’s kind of my point.
I grew up watching Roy prying open reluctant toasters and doing household repairs in his basement workshop. Years later, he taught me a lot how to set type, how to run a printing press with no motor, how to tell just with the tips of your fingers whether your type would hit the paper just right.
I used to watch with fascination as he would work with type, because his fingers were pretty meaty, to be honest, sturdy sausages that still had a surprisingly deft touch, and quick.
This was most apparent watching him work with type forms, moving huge blocks of type wrapped with a piece of twine, getting pages ready for press in iron forms so finely tuned they would sing when Roy tapped an edge with his quoin key, a primitive looking cross of steel he used to adjust the expansion bolts that locked the forms in place.
Roy was a craftsman who eventually missed working directly with the metal and the big presses. People were much harder to manage, so he quit, joining a friend in a little print shop tucked away in a town in Connecticut. When that didn’t pan out, he worked for a while happily making up forms for the New York Times on their night shift, until he found his true calling: education.
Roy spent the last years of his working life teaching high school kids how to run printing presses, how to measure using a type gauge, how to do the strange math that printing involves.
Eventually he pioneered a program to teach printing skills to deaf students, a task that had been deemed too risky by the New York City Department of Education. But Roy, with his patience married to a joy of teaching, pulled it off, and sent lots of his graduates out into the print shops of New York.
I’ve written elsewhere about growing up in this environment, rich in the lore of printing and typography. One of the strongest impressions was watching my father work with his hands, and realizing how much his world revolved around the dexterity and sensitivity he’d gained over a lifetime of practical work.
A Legacy of Skills
I was thinking about this because Roy and his legacy help drive my involvement in helping authors publish their books.
Even after many years making books, writing books, talking about books, and publishing books, my passion to bring all these works to market is unabated.
You see, Roy wasn’t a writer. Not that many people are, really. And, eventually, he passed away. When he did, all those skills, all that wisdom went with him. That’s just human life.
But now, when I think about watching Roy’s hands and the intelligence that seemed to be in them, I think of how easy it is these days to capture skills, instruction, even artisanship, so that it can be preserved and shared with others. That enriches our whole culture, don’t you think?
The same is true for self-publishing. As I’ve often said, most authors don’t initially go into self-publishing to make a lot of money, but to have an influence on the world.
When we make the decision to publish our own work, we’re expressing in the most direct way possible our ability to add something unique to our culture.
Not everyone can express themselves with equal artfulness, but artfulness isn’t always requred. Sometimes fairly simple instructions work equally well. Think of all the treasured family recipe collections that people now publish easily for small circles of friends and relations. I love those projects.
I would have loved to have the tools we have today when Roy could have left a record of his skills and all the small, important things he knew, the things people never think to mention.
Expression Is Destiny
I’ve been lucky enough to have found a voice to express what I know and what I have to share about bookmaking, and by extension, about being in the world.
Publishing—whether books, blog posts, articles for others, or my own products and training courses—has allowed me to fulfill my own desire to create, and then to share my creations. That’s what’s at the bottom of my impulse to write, and to communicate in all those other ways, too.
When Roy ended up teaching, I could see that everything he had done before had been preparation for his last and most influential role. He was incredibly proud of his students, and of the changes he had seen them make under his instruction.
And I see that same arc in my own story. I’ve set type in everything from hand composing sticks to Adobe InDesign, and all the stops in between. I spent years learning how to teach, and more years liberating the writing spirit within me. I worked in advertising and direct-response marketing. Heck, I even collaborated on a typeface design modeled on 15th century classics.
It was when I became a blogger that I was able to connect to many more people than ever, and I know that in some small way I’ve managed to help thousands of authors achieve their own goals. That’s just awesome.
When you begin to fulfill your destiny, it brings all the strands of your life together. It’s a tremendous honor and a privilege to be able to share my own experience with you, and to help you “build better books.”
Thanks for the opportunity.