Sunday, October 25, 2009

The smell of paper and change

If I lived 100 years ago (or 200, or 300, or 400. Take your pick.) I would have wanted to work at a printing press. The crisp, musty smell of new paper, the thick, honest blackness of home-made ink, and the sounds of the press hard at work have an unmatched romance for me. I could get lost for hours in the methodical organization of setting type, and would grow strong pulling the levers of the press and inking the machinery. But most of all, I'd be in it for the feeling that my work mattered. I'd be helping spread new ideas and bringing the world together in a community of readers. I remember learning in elementary school about the lives of children my age in earlier centuries. I was shocked to hear that young boys had to choose their trade young, sometimes as early as 9 or 10. "How can you decide your life's work that early?" I wondered. Famously indecisive, I spent most of last semester worrying about what I would major in, and now that I've declared, I still have freak-out moments where I question my decision. But now I know: if I lived "way back then," (whenever that was) I would choose printing as my occupation. Hands down.

At the Crandall Printing Museum last week, I learned about two admirable printers: Johannes Gutenberg and Benjamin Franklin. Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type printing press, spent 20 years perfecting his creation: experimenting with ink recipes, inventing a hand mold for casting type, and creating the machinery. I really admire his persistence and dedication to making the printed word more accessible. His efforts enabled the widespread printing of the Bible, bringing the word of God to more of the world. Further, he revolutionized the way people communicate and share ideas by making books more accessible.

Benjamin Franklin was a man of many occupations: inventor, philosopher, postmaster general, writer, and politician. But, as I learned from the good folks at the Crandall museum, our old friend Ben considered himself first and foremost a printer. As proprietor of the "Pennsylvania Gazette," he used the written word to spark thoughts of revolution, and encouraged the use of the printed word as a weapon for freedom. An epitaph he wrote for himself at 22 read:
The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

I guess knowing that one of my heroes of American history shared my love for the written word just excites me and makes me feel a little more connected to the past.

And that's what the printed word does, isn't it? Connecting past generations to future, culture to culture, across time, nationality, race, class, and gender? We would be nowhere without this integral aspect of our culture and society. Thank you Gutenberg, Franklin, and all other unsung heroes of printing's history.

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