Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman

I'm a craftsman in two worlds, as a writer and as a construction worker. I don't write the kind of novels that win highfalutin awards, and I don't build the kind of houses that win architectural honors, but I'm pretty good at what I do. I craft. I make a living. So I'm always interested in how other people integrate their values, their families, their simple need to earn a living into their passion for craft.

Peter Korn is a writer, an educator, a furniture maker. As a craftsman he discovered that he couldn't make a living -- or sustain a marriage -- chiseling mortise and tenon joints one by one, chair by chair. He could teach, though. And he could write. In this book, he's a philosopher as he tries to come to grips with what it means to be a craft worker.

We view books through our own personal filters, so here's mine: what interested me was not the philosophy but the memoir aspect, the people Korn met and his own growth as a person and as a furniture maker. He started like me as a carpenter on a construction crew. He had some advantages I never had -- a private school education, Ivy League college, a father who continually bailed him out of business failures and personal setbacks. I envy that. He had Hodgkin's disease and chemotherapy -- twice. I don't envy that. He developed his own furniture style and then really found his calling as an educator, founding and running the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Maine. I applaud that.

Korn traces the history of how society has changed its appreciation of craft -- first as work, then as skill, and finally as art. Eventually Korn realizes that by embracing a life of craft he was seeking self-fulfillment, seeking "a good life." He also realizes that craft alone is not salvation. He witnesses one man who is a great craftsman but fails in most other aspects of life.

Craft itself can be an attempt at redemption. To create something good, one must know something good:
Every man-made thing, be it a chair, a text, or a school, is thought made substance. It is the expression of someone's ... ideas and beliefs.
This book, along with the furniture he made and the school he created, are the expressions of Peter Korn's beliefs. He found his good life.
My father sang a song to me, and then we would sing it together: The bear went over the mountain (repeated three times). And what do you think he saw? He saw another mountain (repeated three times). And what do you think he did? The bear went over the mountain...
And on we'd sing. And so it is. As a maker you put one foot in front of the other and you own the journey. Finding creative passion that governs your life may be a curse as well as a blessing, but I would not trade it for anything else I know.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Self-publishing Before It Was Cool: A Tale from the Old Days

In 1855 an obscure poet named Walt Whitman self-published his first volume, Leaves of Grass. A classic was launched.

A hundred and nineteen years later, in 1974 an obscure writer named Joe Cottonwood self-published his first novel, The Naked Computer. Different outcome.

Well, okay, semi-self-published. At a San Francisco book fair I met a bearded, bespectacled young man (let's call him Manny) who was hoping to become a small publisher. Manny had just bought a used letterpress and was anxious to try it out. He would set the type himself at no cost. I would pay the other expenses: ink, paper, glue. He'd get half the books and try to sell them; I'd do the same.

By the 1970s most books were printed by offset printing, with letterpress reserved for artisanal, high quality, limited editions by small publishers. Here was an offer to produce my novel in a letterpress edition with a small publisher imprint at a very low cost. I was delighted.

So Manny went to work. Badly. With difficulties. The letterpress, in a damp corner of a garage in San Francisco, required hot metal typesetting. A flaw in the Linotype machine allowed hot metal to drip onto the feet of Manny as he was sitting at it, composing type.

Until he could repair the machine, Manny told me the book would be indefinitely delayed. Meanwhile, he showed me a few already-composed pages which contained numerous typos. When I pointed out all the transposed letters, he couldn't see them. He was simply blind to them. In retrospect, I think he was dyslexic. (At the time, I'd never heard of dyslexia.) Reluctantly he agreed to fix the errors.

Months passed. Manny could not repair the Linotype. I gave up on the book and was busy writing another. And then one day Manny called to say that his mother had flown out from Brooklyn, bringing chicken soup, and she had repaired the machine. He printed 400 copies of The Naked Computer. I paid him, as I recall, something like $450.

In classical bookbinding, several pages are printed onto one large sheet of paper, called a signature. When properly folded and combined, these signatures become the leaves of the book. Manny, I learned, was signature-challenged. Due to faulty folding, about half the copies had their pages in the wrong order or else some pages were simply missing. The remaining 200 copies were smudged and off-center. Typos everywhere. It was embarrassing.

A few copies sold at City Lights Bookstore and other shops. I even got a few fan letters. It was my first novel, and it was crappy but had (I believe) flashes of brilliance. The plot, by the way, is about a man who falls in love with his computer, which has been programmed as a female personality. Bear in mind that this was 1974!

My plot preceded Her, the Spike Jonze movie about a man who falls in love with his computer, by forty years. In fact, Spike Jonze was four years old when my book came out. Scarlett Johansson, who is the computer's voice, would not even be born for another ten years. And oh the irony—the script won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay.

I'm not accusing Spike of stealing my idea. I'm sure he's never heard of The Naked Computer. I'm sure many writers have had the same idea of a seductive siren-computer. But I may have been the first.

Some lessons learned. If you write a novel that is forty years ahead of its time, write it better. Avoid dyslexic typesetters. Wear shoes while operating a Linotype. Bless all handy mothers from Brooklyn.

There's one copy of The Naked Computer for sale on the Internet. The price is $131.50. Maybe I should put my two remaining copies out there. Who knows—I might yet break even.