Johnson's World: Things Fall Apart

Printers and binders take note: Craftsmanship is once again a competitive edge.

March 1, 2015
Steve Johnson10773449

“Who folded this?” demanded one of the more vocal of my daughters, in hushed tones befitting the church sanctuary, yet tinged with a self-righteous exasperation appropriate to the scion of a venerable graphic arts heritage.

She was examining her church bulletin, whose physical fold characteristics looked more like a three-dimensional experiment in abstract expressionism than a showcase of the binder’s art. Having watched me turn a critical eye to every piece of paper I’ve touched in her lifetime and having labored in Copresco’s bindery herself, she is well qualified to express her displeasure toward folding that violates generally accepted tolerances.

Another of my children made peace by refolding the bulletin, using her hymnal as a table and her fingernail as a bone. In my church the bulletins are printed flat by the office secretary, then folded in half and collated by hand on Sunday morning by volunteer ushers. The ushers are focused on making parishioners and guests feel welcome and comfortable as they enter the sanctuary. The precision of the fold is a decidedly tertiary priority in their Sunday morning world.

Had the bulletins been professionally produced, such a casual creasing job would have been a public-relations disaster for the printing firm in question.

In this day of automation and mass production, the difference between a professional and an amateur product remains that dying breed, the craftsman: the perfectionist who brings art to the science and soul to the body. I was reminded of this during a lecture by Professor Mark Stoler of the University of Vermont entitled “Misconceptions about the Original Populists.” Dr. Stoler noted in his lecture that the populist movement of the late 1800s was heavily inspired by Edward Bellamy’s utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward 1887-2000. Though hardly read today, it was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century.

This doesn't happen to eBooks

At the mention of this tome, memories came flooding back, for this very novel had a strong and lasting impact in my formative years. I remember seeing it on the “new titles” shelf of my junior high school library. A voracious reader even then, my curiosity was piqued and I became the first to check it out.

Would I be enchanted by the book’s socialist daydreaming? Or might I be repelled by the author’s naïve communistic twaddle? Could this book shape my budding political opinions as it had so many others eighty-some years before?

We’ll never know. I never finished the book. Halfway through the second chapter, the book fell apart. Not the plot line; the book, literally. Pages of uncoated groundwood paper scattered everywhere as the spine glue on this freshly bound volume crumbled to dust. I marched back to the library in high dudgeon, outwardly indignant but inwardly fearful that I might be held personally responsible for the disintegration of their book. To my relief the librarian agreed with me that a new book shouldn’t be shedding its pages. They didn’t have another copy, so home I went empty-handed.

I’ve never forgotten that incident. I’ve since spent hours studying spine milling, notching, glue temperatures, and doctor-blade heights, not to mention glue formulations, side gluing, cover scoring, and three-knife trimming.

Why? Because I’m a craftsman at heart. I take pride in my work. Far from being old-fashioned, craftsmanship is once again a competitive edge, and it is the “good-enough” or worse yet, “almost good-enough” quality manufacturers who are disappearing as their mammoth binding lines stand emptied by over-capacity.

No one has to print anymore. It is a choice, and a choice that commands a premium. What a wonderful thing that after five and a half centuries of commoditization, print is now a blue-chip item. In choosing print, today people are going the extra mile. It is up to print producers to deliver the top-flight product for which they are paying.

Entropy may be the natural state of the universe but it can no longer be the state of printing or binding.