One man's story. (publishing memoirs)
by Robert Bixby
One of the purposes of art is to bring joy into people's lives. And even in these days of unauthorized biographies and kiss-and-tell autobiographies whose whole reason for being seems to be to embarrass and/or injure as many people as possible, the publishing art can occasionally rise to its higher purpose and generate a book whose interest lasts beyond] a single season. This is the story of such book.
For several years a gathering in my wife's family meant the opportunity to read the typed memoirs of my wife's grandfather, John Russell Beal. He prepared them on bond paper and kept them in the kind of binders you probably used in high school to turn in important history papers.
If asked, he probably couldn't have said what he wanted to do with his story other than share it with the very people who were helping--with their memories, photographs, and encouragement--to put it together.
The book grew year by year until it filled several binders. As memories became clearer or were proven inaccurate, erasures, strike-outs, margin notes, and handwritten addenda accumulated in the opus. This was the state it was in when my wife and I agreed to put it together in book form. Night after night she would return from her second job and type a few more pages into our trusty Commodore 64.
Then we transferred the text to PC disks, and my work began. I used a desktop publishing package to typeset it. Family photographs were scanned in and placed in the book as TIF files. I generated the pages using a borrowed laser printer and sent them to Thomson-Shore with an order for 50 copies in a brown cloth binding with the author's name in gold on the cover.
Thomson-Shore of Dexter, Michigan, is preeminent in the tiny field of "short-run" book printers. It offers low-cost, high-quality printing and binding for book runs from 50 to 5000.
The cost for a short run of books is so high, on a per-book basis, that few people are willing to pay it. Our order of 50 came to approximately $14 per book (the complete cost was around $700), but the economies of scale would have made another 50 copies cost only $200 more-or about $9 per book.
Thomson-Shore prints only on acid-free paper, which is stable enough to last 300 years, or 15 generations.
Reading the adventures of a man who helped survey Colorado for the first settler and started his career as an automotive metallurgist when the trolleys were horse-drawn caused us to start thinking in broad historical terms. That's probably the most important function of autobiography. It's devoted to putting historical events on a human scale, to making them as real--or as unreal--as daily life.
The end of the story came at the wedding of my wife's cousin in Ontario, when the family gathered from all over the eastern half of North America. Weddings serve a vital function in her family. They give the grownups an excuse to hide things like rotting fish in the glove compartment of the groom's car. The modern history of the family is a list of wedding atrocities involving shaving cream, cheese, balloons, and leather unmentionables.
At the reception, the champagne and dance music were put on hold while my father-in-law presented a framed document to my wife's grandfather: the copyright registration of his autobiography. It's a government form about as attractive and functional as an application for SSI. But in this case it stood for much more than the fact that two copies of the book had been checked into the Library of Congress. It meant that one man's experiences--and his memories of his parents and others of a generation long past--would be preserved. They would be available not only to the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren gathered at the reception for this emotional moment, but for hundreds, perhaps thousands of his progeny who would never have the opportunity to hear the stories firsthand.