Last week, I had the pleasure of showing some fourth grade students—lots of and lots of fourth grade students, actually—how to use a letterpress machine. As part of a daylong event called Science in the National Parks, several area artists and scientists put on demonstrations for the students who visited with their families and on class trips. Since, in Philadelphia, much of the national park is comprised of urban historical sites, the event took place right downtown, in the courtyard behind the building where Benjamin Franklin had his print shop. (They call it Franklin Court, but I can’t help but think of it as Ben Franklin’s backyard.) This is the place where he published The Pennsylvania Gazette and Poor Richard’s Almanack, and it’s a block away from Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. These two things are connected; without the printing presses of Philadelphia, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense wouldn’t have found its readers—and without his ideas, we might not have had a revolution. The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library was invited to teach the students something about printmaking, so we carved a linoleum block with a charming design, packed up our tabletop Signmaker press, and spent a sunshiny day in late April helping hundreds of kids pull prints in bright-colored ink.
Growing up in Philadelphia, you hear a lot about Ben Franklin. He was one of our country’s founding fathers, of course, but he also started a lot of important stuff right here in Philly, like the University of Pennsylvania, where I went to school, and The Library Company of Philadelphia. His name is on everything—like the Ben Franklin Bridge and the beautiful Ben Franklin Parkway—and his image is everywhere, from commissioned statues (including this one, which commemorates his work as a printer) to the sign attached to a disused water tower advertising the Electric Factory, a concert venue where I’ve spent many hours of my life having my hearing damaged by bands I loved. Several years ago, I visited a friend who lives on the West Coast, and we made a road trip down the coast of Oregon. When we stopped in the small, picturesque town of McMinnville for breakfast, I was startled to see a bronze statue of Ben Franklin sitting on a park bench—a lot like the one on Penn’s campus—and I joked that I couldn’t get away from the guy.
Even still, this know-it-all Philadelphian found spending time in the space where he once worked surprisingly stirring. All day long we told the students a very abbreviated version of the story of what went on inside Franklin’s print shop, and showed them how to use a printing press that operates using the same principles as the one he used. We asked them to consider how difficult and time-consuming it would have been to place every letter of a sentence—and paragraph, page, newspaper, or book—one at a time in order to print it … and not only that, but you had to spell them backward! We helped each kid ink up the block and pull the metal bar across the press bed, applying the pressure that would print the image onto the page. They smiled brightly each time we peeled the paper back to reveal the picture they had made. Mechanical reproduction of this kind produces results that are reliably consistent, of course, and yet no two prints are ever exactly the same. Most of the kids kept a close watch on the prints as they dried on the table because they wanted to be sure they took home the one they themselves had printed. In the 15th century, the invention of the printing press took written communication a step away from the intimacy of handwriting, but today, these old-fashioned printing technologies show the artist’s hand in a way that digital communications can’t. (Not yet, at least.)
The Soapbox is proud to participate in a long tradition of printing in the city where Ben Franklin worked, a city with a rich and colorful—and incendiary—publishing history. If you get the chance to use a letterpress printer, take it. There’s a power in printing your work with your own hands—in pulling that heavy metal contraption over the words and images you placed there—that you can really feel.
The poem “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens, that is. Here are the first two stanzas, courtesy of Poetry magazine, which published the poem in 1915. The entirety of it can be read on the magazine’s website.
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound,
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
The other day at a reading, I bumped into and talked to a sweet pen-pal friend of mine (who is also sometimes a face-to-face friend), a person who lives here in Philadelphia now but used to live in Istanbul. This friend told me about a new movie called Kedi, which is the Turkish word for cat. Kedi is a beautiful documentary about a few of the apparently thousands of cats who live in Istanbul—”free, without a master,” as director Ceyda Torun puts it. In the film’s description, Torun writes that cats have lived this way, in this place, for thousands of years. My friend told me about the movie because I wrote a book about cats, and then I told my mother about it because she once lived in Istanbul too, many years ago now. I asked her if she remembered seeing lots of street cats when she was there, and she said, “I don’t, particularly, but there was a lot going on in those streets.”
And that sure does seem to be the case. My mom and my husband and I went to see the film together, and all three of us found its images of Istanbul to be truly vibrant, in the mellowest and warmest of ways. Busy, ancient, twisting streets, all alive with people and trees, fruit stands and conversation, tea and food and CATS. Cats with their kittens in old cardboard boxes, cats sitting up high on the window ledges of apartment buildings, cats slipping under broken doorways to visit with one of their many human friends. If Kedi is a good measure of the city, it looks like any cat’s dream, with a hundred hiding places on every block and plenty of chances to beg for fish from the port and table scraps from sidewalk cafes.
In the film, the camera often gives us a cat’s-eye view, so we can follow the trotting cats along the streets to see where they go and what they do. But just as often we’re looking Torun’s human subjects in the eye, as they describe the way they met a cat who they now consider a friend. We hear people talk about the cats’ personalities, and how they’ve benefitted from meeting them. We see them feed kittens from bottles, throw scraps of cooked chicken on the sidewalk for them to eat, or smoke cigarettes as they talk softly to their chosen cat friend—even as they’re addressing the filmmaker and her camera. Their stories are reminders that, even when domesticated cats are “strays,” they do depend on human beings for survival—just as we depend on them to make our homes and cities more sanitary (as in, free from mice) and for the unique and almost psychic sort of friendship they can provide.
At the reading where I bumped into my pen-pal, I also met a woman who’s in a band that often writes songs about cats. !! It’s really got me thinking, all this talk (and art) about cats. Just as the rise of the internet has been a sort of validation for the introverts among us, it’s also the reason that cat-love is now at the forefront of the popular culture, I think. Everywhere you look, there are famous cats, wildly popular cartoon cats, and adorable, catchy songs about cats. (And this isn’t even the same band I just told you about!) The idea of the crazy cat lady, as an insult, doesn’t have much sting anymore. Cats are cool. They’re independently-minded, funny, elegant, and wise—and if I dare say it, this film offers proof that the people who love cats are in touch with something a little more sacred, and a lot bigger, than themselves.
I couldn’t help but notice, as I watched this pretty movie, that the production company behind it is called Termite Films. I don’t know the story behind the name, but I choose to interpret it as a reference to the idea of “termite art,” which was coined by the critic Manny Farber in the 1960s. According to Farber, there’s White Elephant Art, which likes to call flashy attention to itself, “filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity,” and then there’s Termite Art, which is small and easily overlooked but powerful because it works in secret, eroding boundaries. Termite Art is where it’s at, if you ask me. Just watch Kedi and see. The universality of the love between people and animals is a powerful message, even when it’s delivered on small, silent feet.
I’m sorry to say it, but Twitter gives me the blues. Lots of behavior on social media in general makes me feel sort of sad, particularly the way we use these venues to show “the world” what we’re “all about.” There’s nothing like following someone you know in real life on Tumblr or Instagram to find out that you don’t like that person as much as you thought you did.
Lest you think that I think I’m immune to any of this, I don’t, and I’m not. I do, however, have a hearty fear of making an ass of myself, and since I’m not much for socializing to begin with I have avoided becoming deeply involved with most social networking websites. I am not now and never was on Facebook, for instance. For years that shit creeped me out, and now it just looks boring. I was also very late to the party on Twitter, tried it for half a year, then quickly became irritated and embarrassed by the puffed-up egos on that website—including my own—and deleted the account.
But there are a lot of useful resources on Twitter, at least for someone like me. I recently signed up for and started taking what looks to be an excellent certificate course on editing offered jointly by the American Copy Editors Society and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit that provides educational resources to journalists. The first class has directed me to a number of useful resources, including reliable ways to keep abreast of updates to style guides, such as following them on Twitter. The Associated Press style guide is on there; so is the Chicago Manual. @APStylebook even hosts live Q&A sessions via hashtag chats. Merriam-Webster has a lively presence there too. The dictionary tweets a word of the day, and regularly interacts with people by answering their questions and appreciating their nerdy puns.
Earlier this week I decided that since I’d like to make use of these resources, I should start a new Twitter account and use it only to access information like this. I’ll maintain a purely professional persona on the website, and not show off how clever or cool I am or get pulled into posting strident, smug commentary on political and social issues. I figured it would be easy for me to carve out an isolated space on there, since I’d only be following dictionaries, style guides, and other copy editors who tweet primarily about industry news and proofreading tips.
But I was wrong. At about 6:00 pm EST on Super Bowl Sunday, Merriam-Webster retweeted a post from one of its staff members, lexicographer Peter Sokolowski:
Then just two days ago, the dictionary tweeted that lookups of the word “impugn” were spiking, then posted this article about Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnell accusing Senator Elizabeth Warren of “impugn[ing] the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” Jeff Sessions, in the talk she gave to express her opposition to Sessions’ nomination to Attorney General. People understandably wanted to be sure they understood the meaning of impugn, which is, according to its entry in Merriam-Webster, “to oppose or attack as false or lacking integrity <impugned the defendant’s character>.” But the Senate rule that McConnell invoked to stop Warren from continuing to read from Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter about Sessions does not use that word; it uses the etymologically unrelated word “impute,” which means “to lay the responsibility or blame for, often falsely or unjustly.” I found this information useful, pertinent, and timely (and I couldn’t help but feel pleased that the person I view as being on the wrong side of this conversation, McConnell, had used the wrong word, like a fool). Later in the week, more light-heartedly and with an attitude of celebration, the dictionary tweeted about the new words it added this year, which include side-eye, face-palm, and the slang usage of the word shade—all fun, trendy things that got people talking and joking and sharing Paris is Burning memes.
I read all this, enjoyed it, and got caught up in thinking about which, if any of these, I would retweet (to find out you can have a look at my Twitter account, and please feel free to “follow” me on there). And then I had to scold myself. Of course I couldn’t use language, or even grammar and usage, as some sort of hideout from the real world. Language isn’t divorced from reality; it’s a reflection of it, a description of the world and everything in it—politics and ego included.
A blurb on the cover of my 1970 edition of 84, Charing Cross Road, from the Saturday Review, calls it “a gorgeous little book about books.”
It is a gorgeous little book, the nonfiction account, told through letters, of an American woman’s long-distance friendship with the sellers at an antiquarian bookshop in London, beginning just after World War II. Helene Hanff was a writer from New York who initially wrote to the shop in 1949 after seeing their ad in the Saturday Review of Literature. She sent them a list of the books she most hoped to find (her “most pressing problems,” which included Hazlitt’s Selected Essays and a collection of Leigh Hunt’s) and received a polite reply that they would be sending her two of them and had begun looking for the others. She wrote back, immediately addressing the very polite British bookseller, Frank Doel (pronounced Noel), in a teasing way (“I hope madam doesn’t mean over there what it does here”), sometimes using ALL CAPS on her typewriter. It’s obvious she couldn’t help herself, New Yorker that she was. She wanted to bring out his more human side, and in time he shared it.
Helene keeps writing, looking for more books, and at some point she finds out from the British boyfriend of her young neighbor just how severe the food rations in the UK were at that time: 2 ounces of meat per family per month, 1 egg per person per month, he told her, and this was after the war had ended! Shocked, she sends them food she chose from the catalog of a British company that imports things from Denmark, which is how the boyfriend has been sending his mother gifts of food. This is the beginning of the real warmth between Helene and Frank et al, though a true friendship had started—and continued, as she kept asking them to try to find “dear goofy John Henry” and some love poems, but “No Keats or Shelley, send me some poets who can make love without slobbering”—over the love of books, particularly old ones.
“It’s against my principles to buy a book I haven’t read, it’s like buying a dress you haven’t tried on…” Helene reveals, which I found to be a very interesting thing to say. Later, she writes:
I houseclean my books every spring and throw out those I’m never going to read again like I throw out clothes I’m never going to wear again. It shocks everybody. My friends are peculiar about books. They read all the best sellers, they get through them as fast as possible, I think they skip a lot. And they NEVRE read anything a second time so they don’t remember a word of it a year later. But they are profoundly shocked to see me drop a book in the wastebasket or give it away. The way they look at it, you buy a book, you read it, you put it on the shelf, you never open it again for the rest of your life but YOU DON’T THROW IT OUT! NOT IF IT HAS A HARD COVER ON IT! Why not? I personally can’t think of anything less sacrosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book.
So yes, this is a book about books, and about reading. It’s also about the romance of bookstores, and the sweet, surprising communities that can form around them. 84, Charing Cross Road is interesting to contemporary readers, too, because it contains so many anecdotal reminders of just how different things were before the internet, and before air travel was as inexpensive and commonplace as it is today. When Helene first wrote to Marks & Co., the UK, still reeling from the war, seemed a very different and far away place. Over the 20 years of their correspondence, we see the gap between the UK and the US begin to close. By the 60s, Frank’s letters report on the hordes of tourists who come through London each summer, many of them Americans making a “pilgrimage” to Carnaby Street. “…I must say I rather like the Beatles. If the fans just wouldn’t scream so.”
Besides all that, though, this is a book about friendship—friendship of a certain, long-distance, partly-imaginary kind. In Helene’s letters to her “friends at 84, Charing Cross Road” she sometimes imagines out loud what the cramped, dusty, Dickensian bookstall must look like. She romanticizes them like crazy, but invites them to do the same to her, making herself into a charming caricature of the brash New Yorker. But Helene also talks about visiting them one day, and seems to mean it. Frank (as well as his wife Nora, in separate letters) and two of the women who work at the bookshop all invite her many times to come visit them, each offering to put her up in their flat or house for as long as she liked.
Year after year, she didn’t go. Money was always a concern. Though she had it pretty good in comparison to the deprivation the English people were still dealing with, she was living the writer’s life (a “freelancer’s” life, we’d say today), and had an unsteady income. Sometimes someone would like her idea for a TV show and offer to pay her a bundle for the script, but other times, she’d work for months on plays that no one wanted to produce. During the period that she was making good money writing murder mysteries for the TV series Ellery Queen, Helene entertained the idea of going to London for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. But then she needed to pay for a lot of expensive dental work, and she didn’t make the trip.
She was there in spirit, though. I love thinking of Helene “crawl[ing] out of bed before dawn on Coronation Day to attend the ceremony by radio…thinking of you all” because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would do. The idea of setting aside solitary time to “be with” someone else in my thoughts appeals to me deeply, loner that I am. Helene Hanff never married, and when I picture the single-lady’s apartment she describes in her letters, with its battered furniture and steady supply of coffee and books (and cigarettes and gin drinks as well, Helene admits; me too), I’m really picturing my own life, the one I had for years before I was married, and all its solitary pleasures.
Such as letter writing. I have a number of pen-pals, maybe around 20 people who I write letters to regularly, some of them for years now. I collect new pen-pals on a regular basis, too, usually through zines. Someone I’ll meet at a zine fair (or who I’ve sold my zines to, or traded mine for theirs) will write me a letter, and then we’re off and running! When I lived alone, sending and receiving these letters constituted a major part of my social life. Most of it, some years, if I’m honest. I have learned that there is a strong similarity between these kinds of friendships and the kinship you can find in books. A human connection is made, in a very real way, but from a distance, and in solitude. It’s a certain kind of person who seeks out this kind of connection—and who sometimes, at least in some ways, prefers it to time spent in another person’s company. I have been this kind of person; I bet a lot of writers have. It has something to do with the life of the imagination, for sure, but it’s a self-protective thing too. You can have a very close bond with a long-distance friend and still feel safe, intact, yourself.
By 1956, Helene announces that she’s been “socking money” away in a savings account, and if “TV keeps feeding [her]” she’ll make a trip to England the next summer. But then her landlord sells the building and she gets evicted from her apartment. She decides to buy one in a new building that hasn’t been constructed yet, and spends all her “England money” on the place and new furniture for it.
The eviction and the dental work were real, unavoidable drains on Helene’s finances, and besides that, I’m aware that in the 1950s, the average middle class person didn’t hop on planes and take trips whenever they felt like it. But it seemed clear to me, reading Helene’s letters, that she was always reticent about traveling to England, that it was something she liked to think and talk about, but maybe never took that seriously as a plan. You get the feeling—and in one letter, to an American friend, she admits to this possibility—she’d rather keep on dreaming about her English friends than meet them in person and have the fantasy spoiled.
SPEAKING OF SPOILED, THE REST OF THIS ESSAY GIVES AWAY THE BOOK’S ENDING. READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK!
In the end, Helene never makes the trip she talked about so much. In October of 1969 she receives a letter from Frank, writing animatedly about tourists and Jane Austen and plans for Christmas (“we are all very much alive and kicking,” he begins), and less than three months later she receives one from the secretary at Marks & Co., who has had to write to tell her that Frank died. His appendix ruptured, which gave him the peritonitis that killed him a week later. Anyone who reads the book would find this terribly sad, and I certainly did. Joe caught me crying on the couch after I finished it, as he has many times after I’ve put down a good, touching book.
But I’m still trying to decide how I feel about this as an ending to the story. The thing is, I kept wanting Helene and her English friends to meet in person, even though I knew all along that they wouldn’t. (I’ve seen the movie, with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, in which they DO meet, and later read about how that never really happened. The movie, incidentally, is also wonderful.) What I don’t understand is why I was wishing for this. Have I lost my capacity for wistfulness? I used to be comprised almost entirely of wist. And anyway, that’s the point of this book. You’re supposed to read it and feel that sense of longing for something that can never be. You’re supposed to enjoy feeling that feeling. It’s like nostalgia—the kind of melancholy that feels good.
I guess what surprises me is that I don’t like that idea as much as I have in the past. I don’t have much capacity these days for enjoying the space between aloneness and closeness, for feeling the pleasure of that friction. I don’t want to want things and not get them. I want the people I love to be with me, and to never lose them. I want to do the things I want to do soon, and not risk missing out on them. I want life to be vibrant, and I want it not to end.
Maybe it’s because everything feels more immediate these days, with every piece of news sounding so dire. Bad people making bad plans. Everyone I know is upset, and at times it seems clear to me that we’re standing on the edge of something huge and dangerous. Like De La Soul sang back in 1996, “Stakes is high.”
I guess I could find it in myself to feel wistful and nostalgic for the times in my life when the world felt LESS scary, come to think of it, but feelings like that seem like luxuries now, and I ought to ration them out.
Yes, there is such a thing as a National Handwriting Day, and it just so happens that I have a short review of a book about handwriting in the current print issue of Utne. Today seems like the perfect day to share it with you. I interviewed the book’s author, Anne Trubek, as well, and Utne plans to post our Q&A on their website, so I’ll link to that once they have.
Trubek and I talked about the history of writing by hand, as well as the demise of this ancient art, which she says is certain but likely to be very drawn out. I don’t have particularly sentimental feelings about handwriting myself, but I am very interested in it (and have been collecting articles on the subject for years now). It’s been fascinating for me to watch the shift from pen to keyboard take place. Though I’m not yet hideously, horribly old, I got an old-fashioned Catholic school education as a kid, and our school had dedicated penmanship classes at a time when that sort of instruction was already falling out of favor. As many, many news outlets have reported in recent years, learning to write by hand has only become more uncommon since then. These days, the majority of adults in the U.S. use keyboards and smartphones for writing far more often than they use paper and ink, and that includes me. That being said, I also have about 20 dear pen-pals who I write handwritten letters to on a regular basis, and I still much prefer to jot down ideas and notes in a small notebook that I carry around in my bag, rather than on my fiddly little phone or my cumbersome laptop. The truth is, I enjoy being able to use all of these tools, new-fangled and time-tested alike, and I think we’re awfully lucky to get to live in a time when we can have our pick.
The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek
As digital supplants print as our default medium and writing by hand goes the way of the dinosaur—whether you remember your penmanship classes from grade school, or were already keyboarding by the time you were ten—chances are good you have an opinion on handwriting. As Anne Trubek shows us in her vigorous new book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, it’s a subject people have had strong feelings about for a long time.
Trubek, a former Oberlin professor, acts as an unsentimental tour guide through handwriting’s history, from the earliest impressions in clay to a modern American classroom, where second graders learn both to type on a keyboard and write by hand. At the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, she has the pleasure of holding a clay Sumerian cuneiform tablet in her hand, just as the person who wrote on it with a stylus did some 5,000 years ago. (It’s surprisingly small and comfortable to hold, not unlike her smartphone.)
The author shows us how medieval scribes copied out manuscripts by hand, and tells us what happened when the printing press came along to make their work obsolete: Interestingly, the new technology didn’t immediately replace the old one, and “scores” of manuscript books were made after the production of printed books began. We also learn that by the 16th and 17th centuries, Europeans had a variety of scripts that denoted social class, gender, and profession. In fact, the few English women who were taught during the 16-19th centuries learned a special script called Italian hand, “a simpler script for the simpler sex.”
In looking toward handwriting’s “uncertain future,” Trubek seems to decide it’s not all that uncertain: It’s on its way out, though it will probably take a very long time to go. Many people find this time of flux disturbing, and long for the human-ness of handwriting, a fact Trubek reports without scorn—though she’s dismissive of recent research that has come out from several universities suggesting that handwriting is cognitively superior to typing in various ways, calling the science “fuzzy.”
Though much has changed, all of the concerns Trubek touches on in her history of handwriting—class and gender, culture and tradition—have resonance for us today. Even the desire to return to the warmth and authenticity of handwriting has a recent historical precedent, she writes. One hundred years ago, William Morris and friends revived medieval calligraphy methods as a response to the industrial revolution, “with its machines and smog and printed letters.” Just as letterpress printing is considered an art form today, those revivalists called their illuminated pages artworks, preserving their beauty for a world that no longer needed them for communication.