The Gift of Apprenticeship

In printing, novel-writing — and life

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I remember with searing clarity the day I printed a thousand envelopes with the wrong zip code in Yolla Bolly red. It was my trial week in a fine letterpress shop in a remote California valley. The master printer bellowed, and I cried. I had hoped to become the Yolla Bolly Press’s first apprentice, but for a while it looked like I would be the last.

Jim Robertson was a hard-charging, passionate master of his craft who ruled his shop with an iron fist and an exacting eye. When after all he took me on, I spent the first weeks cutting paper and distributing type back in its case, terrified that I’d screw up. He was a damned “feinschmecker,” he conceded later with a grin. The term, a blend of fussbudget and connoisseur, reflects the fact that printing, to be truly fine, requires utmost precision. The secret to Yolla Bolly’s gorgeous books was obsessive attention to detail, from design to execution. Each page was carefully composed in shape and size; each line of type was justified, inked, and impressed exactly right.

Les Lloyd, my first master, was the complete opposite. My grandfather was a renowned San Francisco typographer who started teaching me the ‘dark art’ in my teens. An extraordinary man who designed books with Ansel Adams, the Grabhorn brothers, and other California luminaries, he was modest and self-effacing. He ran the largest hot type foundry on the West Coast, Mackenzie & Harris, and printed in his little hobby shop in his spare time. We printed together in his suburban garage; he didn’t rant when I wasted sheets or dumped a tray of type onto the floor, a mess called “printers’ pie”. He only laughed and told me to start over.

His method was gentle, patient: he printed for the love of it, to please himself. He passed to me the heritage that he himself received, leaving school at 16 to become a printer and lifelong member of the club of Printing House Craftsmen. I remember feeling deeply honored on the day that he saluted me in public as his apprentice.

I dedicated my first novel, the story of the Gutenberg Bible, to both these long-gone, much-loved masters. And over the many years of my different apprenticeships — in printing and in novel-writing, and in life — I’ve come to see the fundamental lesson they imparted. True mastery requires both kinds of training: perfectionism, if not sheer obsession, and abiding patience.

We live in a world of instaneity: our culture celebrates the teenaged millionaire, the overnight success. Yet all of our crafts, our wild, inventive human skill with tools, are based on something slower and much deeper. The path to skill in any art requires a long and painful journey. Despite our bits and bytes, this truth still holds. It took seven years in the medieval guilds: a period of apprenticeship, before the journeyman set out upon his wander years. This slow learning, to my mind, is like the movement called “slow food”. Its chief components are time and close instruction, which engage the mind and body in a way no massive open online course can do.

Every Friday for two years, my grandfather and I printed at his Red Squirrel Press. We made books and pamphlets and ephemera; he showed me secrets of the trade, from tissue paper packing tricks to letterspacing. We pored over books made by Leonard Baskin and Frederic Goudy; he described the Monotype caster, the Linotype, the San Francisco fine presses that descended from the English artisans at the great Kelmscott and Doves presses.

This was the first half of the gift of apprenticeship: preserving mankind’s store of knowledge, which the printing press had first made possible. Les was not just a mentor, standing in for the parent as the master did, “in loco parentis.” He was a living link transmitting our cultural heritage, embedded in brain and heart through the act of making at his side.

The second value of this kind of learning is the method the apprentice learns. In his marvelous treatise “The Craftsman,” the philosopher Richard Sennett defines craftsmanship as doing a job well for its own sake. There are no short cuts: “the craftsman must be patient, eschewing quick fixes.” The goal is to embed skill in the body, to make this knowledge tacit, so that the mind and hands are freed to play and push the tools beyond their given purpose. Aristotle noted the same thing centuries ago: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

It’s fashionable now to talk of the 10,000 hours it takes to achieve mastery in a field. But what this misses is what happens in those hours. Rote repetition is a waste of time; the learning comes from failure, and then self-correction. The feeling is a sense of not-quite-there that every artist knows. A humbling occurs, a willingness to dwell in this discomfort. “The patience of a craftsman can thus be defined as the temporary suspension of the desire for closure, “ Sennett writes.

I think of Jim’s stubborn feinschmeckery, the high standard he set for the printed word, which he called “the playing field of the human imagination.” I think of Les’s gnarled fingers setting half of Moby Dick in his retirement, his speed and expertise amazing the next generation. I see now how their gifts of patience and precision have informed my own apprenticeship in the allied craft of writing, which has taken me far longer than the seven years prescribed by any guild.

In craft, we are absorbed; we enter the material, lose the murky overlay of ego. Monastic scribes believed that this rapt state made of their bodies a pure channel for God’s word. In modern terms, what I’ve been taught — through trial and error, failure and rejection and success — is that the craft of making has its own time, and that excellence cannot be rushed or forced.

When Jim died, too young, I spoke at his memorial. The Robertsons built books from the inside out, I said — starting with the words, the human spirit they conveyed. Decades before I knew anything about Gutenberg, I eulogized “that great handing-on, bringing a new generation forward steeped in the craft, lore and love of the letterpress.”

As Les lay dying, I worked against the clock to finish our last book, his memoir of the heyday of hot type. He waited as I printed the title page on his old platen press, and had a sample volume bound. I placed it in his hands; he whispered thanks. The torch was passed. The next day he was gone.

“Gutenberg’s Apprentice” is out in paperback, ebook and audiobook, and available in half a dozen other languages.

Written by

Novelist, printer, contributor to The Economist Books and Arts. Debut novel Gutenberg's Apprentice published September 2014

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