Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Printing with Joan Didion
The weather gods apparently subscribe to the Gregorian calendar. Friday last was the first of December, and that night we got our first reasonably sharp chill of the year. I had been raking leaves off and on in a desultory way for a better part of a month, but I would estimate that the trees had dropped only about half their load by Thursday, when the town’s huge leaf-vacuum trucks made what was threatened to be the last curbside collection of the year. Since then there has been a continuous blizzard of light gold and pale red oak leaves carpeting the front lawn. You would hardly know that I had already removed a small mountain of them.
But the turning of the calendar page and its concomitant change in the weather also inspired me to more satisfying exertions, ones that left me with something to show for my efforts. For the first time in more years than I can remember I (1) constructed an Advent wreath before the arrival of the first —or for that matter second or third—Sunday of the season; and I (2) printed the Christmas cards. This latter achievement I regard as particularly spectacular, although we still have the opportunity to face the full angst of crisis by procrastinating on their preparation for mailing.
Though my study is dominated by printing presses, type cabinets, a huge composing table, and a paper cutter, it is mainly an overstuffed library that looks like a set for “Hoarders”. The initial and continuing problem was negotiating the clutter. I hadn’t done much serious printing in a while, as perhaps the fact that I did regard this assignment as “serious printing” might suggest. It involved quite a lot: the marital squabble about the right line etching and the search to locate it when decided upon, the composition of some ten point type despite octogenarian eyesight and fingers, the delicate alignment and make-ready for some eighty pound stock that had to go three times through the press, and the tedious imposition of an elegant return address on five hundred A-6 envelopes with tapered flaps. But it is amazing how much one can achieve once one resigns oneself to abandoning all serious work, such as getting a book finished.
I love printing all alone in the early morning hours “while the city sleeps”—or at least that part of the city with whom I share my life. The ample flourescent lighting of my library-pressroom is as bright as a noonday desert in the largely darkened house and in the greater darkness beyond the windows. There is a gentle but business-like hum to the variable speed motor, and the well-oiled clickity-clack of the Chandler and Price, punctuated decisively by the dull percussion of platen and type form at the moment of impact. It’s not exactly rocket science, but it still requires attention and dexterity, even a little skill, to achieve a good product.
In recent years I have liked to have a video playing on my computer while I’m printing. I alternate ten or fifteen minute segments between the old technology and the new. The episodes of viewing offer refreshment from the more demanding episodes of printing. For the printing of this year’s card I had settled upon a Netflix documentary about the life of Joan Didion—“The Center Will Not Hold”. This occurred by pure chance, but there is something appropriate about the linkage of printing and authorship. I am hardly alone in admiring the quality of Didion’s prose or the remarkable sensibility that it expresses. She is, after all, one of the most celebrated of living writers. But content is also a draw. We are roughly of an age—she’s a year and a bit older than I—and I myself was fascinated by many of the cultural events of the Sixties and Seventies about which she has famously written. Yet what struck me most forcibly in this video was determined I suppose by the eccentric circumstances under which I was viewing it. It’s quite recent, having come out only this year. Many of its scenes show the author in the last year or two. She has aged dramatically. In fact I would describe her as a frail old lady. Her speech is utterly lucid, crisp, nuanced—finely pointed like her prose. But she has a disconcerting mannerism of moving both her arms—especially the right one--in front of her while she talks. It is hard to tell whether this is a neurological tic or a lifetime habit grown pronounced in old age. I could see no obvious correspondence between this brachial motion and the content of what she was saying. But it was strikingly similar to another pattern with which I am quite familiar: the arm motion required when operating a clam-shell press. One must concentrate intently on feeding the press with the right hand while constantly ready to disengage the clutch lever with the left. Failure to do so by half a second can result in a real mess. What is called for is less a cooperation between the upper limbs than a competition between them, or better yet a feigned indifference between them. Jesus had something else in mind when he said “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”, but he might have been describing Didion talking or Fleming printing.