I’m a primitive. Now, in my case, you could take that more than one way. There’s my redneck pedigree, my preference for white socks, the caveman beard. I like steak, prefer 19th Century novels to 21st Century anything, and when I think I’m being flirtatious, the husband asks if I’m hungry, or angry or . . . what?! etc., etc., etc. All of that’s perfectly true. Just here what I mean to say is that I like a good #2 pencil. Seriously, just about my favourite thing in the world, a good #2 pencil. Best tool in the world. My idea of fun, a #2 pencil.
Let me be clear, I want none of your effete mechanical pencils, your wax-pencils, your #2 and 3/4 pencil, or, Heaven forfend, your #1. Feh! I like a solid, old-fashioned, time-tested, yellow #2 pencil, sharp. And, I think because I was cursed with stubby, graceless Celtic paws made for nothing better than grubbing nutritious tubers out of the peat or what-have-you, I actually have a rather perverse preference for the nearly used-up, stubby nubs of otherwise good #2 pencils. I collect stubs. Best part of the pencil. (I know that’s odd, but remember? Fat ham-hands.)
But I rhapsodize. My point being, left to my druthers, a good #2 pencil is about as far I’d go technologically. Bleached white typing-paper (yeah, I still call it that ’cause I’m old), a #2 pencil, and I’m good to go. (I don’t even like fancy notebooks, Moleskins and the like affectations. People give me the things now and then as gifts, perfectly lovely gifts, but I never use them. Just seems . . . fussy. I use mostly “scratch-paper,” you know; now useless printing on one side, my own notes, doodles, nonsense on the other. And if I’m walking around, just fold a couple of sheets of 8 1/2 by 11, with at least one clean side, into fourths, you got a “notebook.” See? Primitive.)
Drawing pads? Smart-phones? Electronic tablets? Photoshop? The universal remote? Are you kidding me? People, I wear buckled shoes. No lie. I wear leather-clogs, with an adjustable strap, and yes, there are buckles. (Not to give ’em a free plug or anything, but the brand’s Mephisto, and they’re French, though sold mostly in Germany where, it seems, the folk have fat lil’ calves’ feet like me.) I am the very last person to embrace the new . . . well, anything. Just guess where I fall on the whole print versus electronic-reader spectrum.
All of which is just by way of set up for the shocking news that I just published a book. Here’s the thing about that, though, before anyone gets too excited on my behalf, just in case anyone was thinking of doing that: the subject, object and verb in that last sentence all require further explanation. So, when I say “I” published a book, I mean I drew and lettered about two dozen caricatures of poets, wrote a childish Alphabet rhyme, and some notes on the poets, titled the whole thing A Is for Auden: an Alphabet Book of Poets, and then all but handed the whole smudgy, grey bundle to my brilliant coworker Anna. To be accurate though, I sent her scans attached to emails and then she sold me an ISBN and made me a book.
When I say “published” that means Anna used what I can only assume was some form of magic to legitimately print and bind copies of an actual book, with my name on it. And when I call this little 49-page object a “book,” well you can imagine, I’m not suggesting it’s a book in the same sense that, say, David Copperfield is a book, or even in the sense that Edward Lear’s A Book of Nonsense is a book, but still, what I did has, by the alchemy of the bookstore’s Espresso Book Machine and the neuromancing Anna, become a reproducible, readable, saleable reality.
Wow, right? I know. I don’t pretend to understand either the mechanics or the ultimate economics of these things, or even mean to speak to all the wider implications of this revolution in self-publishing or my own participation in same. I’m not saying that every bookstore, large or small, needs to invest in the not inconsiderable cost of such a commitment to new technology. (I do think it might behoove both the bigger and smaller independents to work together in exploring the opportunities for community outreach, promotion and sales that the EBM and other new technologies may ultimately represent.) My point here, beyond giddy self-promotion, is to simply point out the very real improbability of someone like me doing something like this and yet, here we are.
I write and draw and read aloud for a blog, usedbuyer 2.0. I don’t understand how the blog really works. Every time there’s even a slight change—never an improvement—in the format of the thing, I howl in pain. That I can make the thing work at all still astonishes me, even as I come to the end of my third straight year of doing it nearly every day. (I once changed the language preference to Thai, though I had no idea that that was what I’d done, that it was possible to do so, and I certainly had no idea how to fix what I’d done.) I make what I will always think of as “videos,” mostly of me reading things like Oliver Goldsmith essays and Tennyson poems aloud, and then I post these to my channel on Youtube.com, whatever that means, and then post them to my blog, whatever that means, and then, inexplicably, someone very occasionally will watch one. For heaven’s sake, a boy in Portugal—Portugal!—thanked me for helping with his homework.
Because someone asked me to, and because a lovely young man named Sasha who works at the copy-shop down the block agreed to help me, I have recently produced my third calendar of literary caricatures to give away for Christmas presents and sell in the bookstore. And now, I made an actual book.
Brag, brag, brag, right? No, actually. Okay, maybe a little, but the point, honestly, is how anyone might do just about any of this, or something like, or something utterly unlike but way cooler, by simply being open to and interacting with some of the available new technology in and around independent bookselling. I can’t be the only primitive here. I know I’m not. I still prefer hand-lettering signs. I still read hardcover. I still like hanging out with actual, physical customers in actual time and space. And yet— and yet!—even I can now participate in the democratization of independent publishing, use social media, create using only the most traditional materials and yet reach a far wider audiences— maybe even dozens of people not my elderly parents—with a few mouse-clicks, which again, I do not understand and still think of as hoodoo.
See? The possibilities, for unique content and merchandise, for self expression and promotion, are pretty nigh endless, so why not? (I happen to know, just in the store where I work, we must have a dozen genuinely gifted artists, half again as many musicians, crafters, writers, performers. I’ve worked in some pretty small book operations too, in my time, and even the smallest staff had roughly the same ratio of talent to staff.)
Look, if someone who’s idea of a perfect technology is a stubby #2 pencil can end up making and selling a book roughly three weeks after the idea first occurred to him? There really isn’t a reason in the world we can’t all be doing interesting, even amazing things. Do I have to draw you a picture?! (‘Cause that, maybe I could actually do.)