The London Review of Books is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but somehow the magazine has always felt older than that: not like the product of a stuffier age, but of a more textually and intellectually lavish one than the late 1970s. Pick up an early issue and you’ll see that, as much as it has evolved in the details, the basic project of the LRB remains the same: publishing essays of the highest quality on a variety of subjects literary, political, and otherwise, allowing their writers a length sufficient for proper engagement of both subject and reader, and — perhaps most admirably of all — refusing, in this age of internet media, to burden them with semi-relevant pictures and clickbait headlines.
“Much in those early numbers still looks fresh,” writes Susannah Clapp, who worked at the LRB during its first thirteen years. “But the apparatus and surroundings that produced them seem antique. Typewriters. Letters covered in blotches of Tipp-Ex, for which the office name was ‘eczema.’ No screens; hand-drawn maps for layout; tins of Cow Gum.” The cow gum was an essential tool of the trade for Bryony Dalefield, who since 1982 has worked “pretty near continuously” for the LRB as what’s called a “paste-up artist.” In the video above, she describes how her job — whose title remains “pleasingly still in the vocabulary in the digital age” — once involved “literally cutting up copy and pasting it onto a board so it could be sent to the printers and photographed for printing.”
Dalefield doesn’t just recount the process but performs it, summoning a presumably long-dormant but well-honed suite of skills to paste up a current page of the LRB just as she did it in the 80s. First she takes the text of an article, fresh from the print shop, and cuts it into columns with scissors. Then she spreads the Cow Gum, with its “strong petrol smell,” to fix the columns to the board, fearing all the while that she’ll stick them on out of order. Even in order, they usually require the addition or removal of words to fit just right on the page, and at the LRB, a publication to whose meticulous editing process each and every contributor can attest, another round of edits follows the first pasting. We then see why X-ACTO knives are called that, since using one to replace individual words and phrases on paper demands no small degree of exactitude.
With the wrong bits cut out and the right ones pasted in and held down with Magic Tape, the completed page is ready to be sent back to the printer. Pasting-up, which Dalefield frames as a marrying of the work of editors and typographers, will seem astonishingly labor-intensive to most anyone under the age of 50, few of whom even know how magazines and newspapers put together their pages before the advent of desktop publishing. But the very word “desktop,” in the computer-interface sense, speaks to the metaphorical persistence of the old ways through what Dalefield calls the “falling out of trades” in the digital age. I myself have done a fair bit of “cutting,” “copying,” and “pasting” writing this very post — but I suppose I never did say, “Oh, that’s very sticky” while doing so.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.