Making Books, Then and Now

Having a 2 ½-year-old son who’s fascinated by any and all things mechanical, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching the way things work. Construction sites, roadwork, open manholes, even trash collection have all become occasions for Henry and me to stop and observe machines doing their jobs of making things or taking them apart. And to be honest, we wouldn’t be stopping so often if I wasn’t just as interested by this stuff as Henry. Some of my most vivid childhood memories involve heavy equipment: driving the freight train at my grandfather’s scrapyard in Reading, PA; a tour of the Bethlehem Steel Factory, complete with hard hats (very official!); running pennies through the stamp machine at the U.S. Mint—all of these have stuck in my brain over the years.

Now, what does this have to do with books? Well, I found this awesome video on The Huffington Post this morning from 1947 that shows how books were made nearly 65 years ago. True, the narration is a little hokey, and it’s groan-inducing to see which roles are assigned to men and which go to the “girls.” But check out all the moving parts! Sheets of molten copper! In particular, I love the trimming device that shaves the edges off the pages—so ingenious. I just wish they told us what the finished book was!

On a more practical level, I hope that in this age of ebooks this video provides just a little more ammunition/inspiration for print lovers not to give up the fight just yet. During my editorial career, I was lucky to visit the printer/binder a few times, and each trip was a great reminder of how much work, care, and physical manipulation goes into making each and every book you hold in your hands. True, there are far fewer print-shop workers today than in 1947, and the typesetting is mostly done by computers. But the printers still have the big rollers, the sewing machines, the glue bindery, and lots of other heavy equipment, all housed in cavernous, noisy factory spaces like they were way back when.

So check out the video, or if you can, take a tour of a printer near you—better yet, take along your kids. Not only will it reaffirm the wonder and value of the printed page, but it’s a great opportunity to see some really cool machines in action!

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