The Apprehensive Apprentice: How a Bibliophile Found a Community in Letterpress

Written by Marisa Sloan

I owe a lifelong debt to books. After all, I stored my adolescence between their covers. While my peers shared cigarettes behind the bowling alley, I indulged myself by sniffing hardbacks in the safety of my room. Books seduced me with their decorative jackets and consumed my evenings. These dates talked solely about themselves and weren’t put off by my shyness. That’s what I loved about them.

The beauty of books is that dialogue is much less distressing for me than human interaction. Conversation has always been an unscripted performance where I have stumbled across the stage. Until a few years ago, my chest tightened like a boa constrictor whenever I had to speak in front of others, and the lack of breath reduced my voice to a quiet stutter. Minutes felt like hours beneath the spotlight of my classmates’ stares. My palms stained the desk with sweat whenever the teacher called on me, and my mind spiraled around in terror over what my peers were thinking. I imagined them internally rolling their eyes at my stupidity while contemplating how to make my awkward disposition a point of interest during locker-room talk.

As can be expected, I was silent during group work because I didn’t want to say something “wrong” or irritate someone by offering an alternative opinion. I was living camouflage.

But books didn’t criticize me for standing on the fringe. Kafka and Dickinson almost made self-imposed isolation look like a requirement for writing. I bent my head so close to books that my nose nearly touched the paper, which afforded me the luxury of never having to make eye contact with anyone. Reading is one of the few activities where discomfort can be masked as an intellectual pursuit.

My affinity for reading also brought me to the realization that I could use academia to compensate for my sub-par social skills. After school, I would lock myself in the 12 by 15 world of my room for the entire evening and only come out long enough to eat, although I would try to sneak dinner to my room anyway. With no one around to watch me struggle or critique me, I felt calm enough to work through my homework, master the concepts and do extra credit.  I spent my weekends submerged in calculus and classic literature. My studies seemed to be my only place of potential success, so I thrust myself upon my crutches of books. I didn’t have time for people when I was reading chapters weeks in advance or learning about Hellenistic Greece.

Considering my compulsive need to be alone, the path toward authorship seemed to be encoded in my DNA. It was the ideal creative outlet (even as a certified nerd I still get bored with scholarly articles) and it played to my strength: avoidance. I thought that I could finally live productively while bypassing social interaction.

But Book Arts Collaborative punctured holes in my logic.

Book Arts Collaborative is a bookbindery and letterpress print shop located in downtown Muncie that is offered as a course to Ball State students. It is adjacent to the largest continuously operating print shop in the United States, and no other place in the country houses as many presses, printer’s cuts and typefaces in one location for student use. Here students learn how to make several different stitches, compose their own type and operate 11 letterpress machines. Students across a variety of majors converge to create books and prints for retailers while learning the dynamics of maintaining a business. We are the archivists of the technological age.

Even though the haze of my fear, I knew that this makerspace was an opportunity before all else. Since I had been so deeply comforted by the marriage of ink and paper, it would be enriching to understand what labor went into creating my literary escapism. Of course, the cauldron of my thoughts bubbled with apprehension for weeks about how I could work while surrounded by others for several hours at a time. But I told myself that the knowledge I would acquire was worth more than the ball and chain I dragged around with “social interaction” engraved on it.

That mentality worked for about three days. Then the hyper-awareness of those around me kindled the burning coals in the furnace of my chest again. Noticing everyone having their books sewed together when I was halfway done stripped my confidence down to high-school insecurities. Anxiety rippled through my body until I could barely rip paper with a bone folder or sew sheets of paper together.

My first coping mechanism was reverting to my nose-to-the-desk days. I concentrated on my needle and thread like a vindictive child holding a magnifying glass over an ant. When my professor gave further instruction, I was so far behind that I vaguely registered her voice.

But skirting around in my own universe wouldn’t alleviate the problem either. The first time I loaded a chase, I spent over an hour inserting the tiniest spacers and furniture of various lengths rather than asking for assistance. After I had exhausted all the ways I could complete the forme on my own, I spent several minutes working up the courage to ask a classmate to look at it. A quick glance confirmed that I needed to restart.

Although I was frustrated that an hour of work had been for naught, I was more distressed about the five minutes it took for my classmate to fix my issue. I felt like such a nuisance for pulling them from their work. My stomach churned in dread at how exasperated they must be with me, although they took the time to reassemble the chase correctly.

This worry was exacerbated by the fact that I felt like I was several steps behind everyone else on a daily basis. I assumed my classmates just thought I was stupid by this point. I felt like a burden.

But I had to stop making everything so hard or else I wasn’t going to appreciate the privilege of working in this space. I replayed the memories in my head of how my classmates greeted me with warmth rather than annoyance when I asked for their help to reinforce that I wasn’t aggravating them. Even when I had I apologized multiple times for “bothering them” they never snapped at me or told me to figure out a problem by myself. A few of them even drove me back to campus so I wasn’t late for work or class since I didn’t have a car. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to continue without their kindness.

I marvel at my classmates’ inner peace as they fix a misshapen stitch or clean a press. The relaxed way in which they pace themselves enables them to line quality journals, coasters, and postcards along the shelves of the shop. It feels soothing to hear their discourse even if I do not always feel comfortable contributing to their conversations myself. The community that they create amongst themselves reminds me of how the library of Alexandria once hummed with ideas. A discussion is arguably the most effective way to learn.

But listening is its own art form. Watching my classmates grow into entrepreneurs and listening to the evolution of their ideas parallels the simultaneous thrill and detachment of reading a story. I see people my age navigating the uncertainty of the market from the safety of my own silence, and their success is the lingering hope that I feel after finishing a novel—hope that I will find the courage to live a story worth writing down.

This piece was written by a Ball State University student and member of the Book Arts Collaborative in Muncie, Indiana. The Book Arts Collaborative is dedicated to preserving and promoting the apprentice-taught skills of letterpress printing and bookbinding through community interaction. It’s not just what we make that matters, but how we learn from one another to make it happen.

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