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Tech Perdu: Nina Shengold 

[Editor's introduction: Consider the dinosaur. Although it has not made the fern-bar scene or feasted on its fellow colossi since the late Cretaceous, it remains vital to the world’s imagination. As every kid, palaeontologist, and movie producer knows, there is something inherently lovable and enthralling about these vanished Gargantuas, as well as something that evokes pathos—when we contemplate their lost, lumbering grace, their great dignity and gravity, we often have the nagging sense that what has replaced them has not necessarily been for the better.

So, too, for the dinosaurs of communications technology. The digital gizmos that have made them obsolete have nothing of their charm, nobility, or romantic allure—at least not according to the seven writers assembled here, who offer bittersweet encomiums to the typewriter, the rotary phone and the phonebooth, letter-press printing, black-and-white photographs, 45rpm records, telexes and telegrams, and writing and receiving letters via good, old-fashioned snail mail. Read on, and be here then.]

During my itinerant twenties, I spent six months as an apprentice typesetter at Copper Canyon Press. Founded by iconoclastic poet Sam Hamill in 1972, the celebrated poetry publisher was then a small operation that made limited-edition letterpress books and broadsides. The air in the print shop was redolent with the smell of ink, and as soon as I saw a worker hand-pulling proofs from a cast-iron platen press, synching his own rhythm to the machine’s, I was hooked.

Letterpress typesetting is as hands-on as it gets. Small, three-dimensional pieces of lead type are assembled—letter by letter, word by word, line by line—into a block of text, which is inked and pressed into the surface of each sheet of paper, creating a rich, embossed depth. There’s a proud sense of craftsmanship to the whole enterprise, tracing its lineage back to the Gutenberg Bible.

A letterpress typesetter knows a poem with a tactile intimacy that even the poet may not possess. When I typeset a broadside of Gary Snyder’s poem “Axe Handles,” I wondered if he’d ever noticed how much the top of the X in “axe” resembles the notch that that tool leaves in a woodblock, or felt the jagged/smooth texture of long and short lines. These are things learned by thumbs that run over the type.

Words are not permanent. Nor, for that matter, are poems or books, readers or writers. In some ways, it may be as metaphorically apt for ideas to travel as electronic impulses flashed onto screens as it is to embed them on paper. But perhaps it’s precisely because thought is transient that I crave the physical weight of a book in my hands, the texture of paper that holds a residual whiff of the forest primeval.

In Snyder’s “Axe Handles,” a father shows his son how to carve an axe handle by using his own as a model. Remembering his teacher, the father concludes:

And I see—he was an axe

And I am an axe

And my son a handle, soon

To be shaping again, model

And tool, craft of culture,

How we go on.

When I give my daughter my copy of “Axe Handles,” I will be passing on not just the words of the poem, but a physical object crafted from them. She can read Snyder’s words on the Web, but it won’t be the same. I want her to feel the echo of metal and wood in my “Axe Handles”—words imprinted on paper, for more than the blink of an eye.

Nina Shengold’s novel Clearcut was published by Anchor Books in 2005. As the books editor of Chronogram, she has interviewed more than 50 Hudson Valley authors.

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  • An ode to a familiar item from the pre-digital age: The printing press


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