For three weeks this winter, I worked a temp job as a warehouse worker at small publishing company here in Seattle. It was 40 hours a week—ten hours a day, Monday through Thursday. I did it this with my two dear friends, Alec and Brent. Every morning at 6:30, we left the house. It was still dark. We arrived by seven and stood in a line, all three of us, doing the same set of motions. We bound books.
We were, admittedly, cogs in a very big machine, and if they could figure out how to make cheap robots to do our work instead, we would have been out of a job. Binding a book involves two machines—one to apply the glue to the cover, and one to press the book together (hey, I found a picture!)—and about thirty seconds of labor by hand. Imagine doing the same minute-long process for 10 hours every day, with a fifteen minute break every two hours or so. Mind-numbing, you would think.
The weird thing was, I actually enjoyed it. There is a deeper sort of dignity in manual labor. It is good to come home tired. When you work a ten-hour shift, it’s easier not to feel guilty about watching TV or reading a book, or doing any other activity that involves a couch.
One of the reasons I enjoyed my job was that its repetitive nature freed me to just think, which is something I have a hard time doing these days. Life is full of distractions, especially when you’re on a computer, and being away from all that stuff is incredibly refreshing. It is liberating.
The other bonus is that I was binding books, and I love books. This particular publishing company does mainly individual orders. People will put together family photo albums, or chronicle their vacations, or document their weddings, make books out of them online, and have this company print them off and ship them over. Consequently, my job often made me feel like something of a voyeur. Not in a gross way. Usually. Sometimes we print some pretty dirty stuff. Ladies, if you’re going to make a book online of nude pictures of yourself and mail it to your boyfriend or husband or whatever, do keep in mind that about 18-20 factory workers will also be viewing these photos, you know?
Regardless, the books I print prompt my imagination and make me think. On Tuesday, for example, about 90% of the books I bound were of white, middle-class families’ vacations, reunions, and weddings. For some reason, the middle class finds this kind of thing irresistible. What really makes me gag is when I put together an 80-page book about somebody’s dog. Or somebody’s dog’s love affair with somebody else’s dog. That’s just weird, people. Your dog is not that special. If you absolutely must coddle and spoil something, adopt a child or something. A dog is a dog. You can put a tutu or a leather jacket on it or whatever you want, but it will still shit on your lawn.
Boy am I tangential today.
Anyway, on this one day in particular I found binding all of these books very off-putting. I come from a white, middle-class family, and in many ways I am very thankful for that. I am lucky to have parents that stayed together, lucky that my mom and dad both have steady jobs, and lucky that I grew up in a safe neighborhood. Those things were very important to my childhood. What’s more, as a member of the middle class, I’m lucky that I know how to do a job interview, how to fill out a tax return form, and how to budget and manage money (even if I don’t always follow through). These are important skills.
But it was a bizarre and unsettling experience, binding books full of pictures of middle-class people doing middle-class things. We take vacations in tropical locations. We play expensive sports. We spoil our pets. It was bizarre and unsettling, mainly, because the people I worked with are emphatically not white, or middle-class. They are the working poor. They don’t go to Cabo when they get a week off, they don’t live in safe neighborhoods, they can’t afford a college education. And they are, largely, invisible to the people taking those vacations and spoiling those dogs.
To put it another way: I’ve read a lot of books in my life, but never once, until this job, had I thought about where they might come from. I don’t mean the authors, of course. I mean the materials themselves. It struck me last week that somebody put together this book for me. Many people, in fact. And their names weren’t featured prominently on the cover. None of the books I bound this week will say anywhere, “bound lovingly by Michael A. Zosel”. And I have no idea who put together my copy of “The Qur’an: A Biography” or “The New Testament and the People of God”. I have no idea who cut the trees down, who made the paper, who printed the ink, who cut the pages, who sewed them together, who attached the covers, or any of that.
We in the middle-class don’t really think about that kind of thing very often. We consume, yes—but someone must produce. And our consumption is dependent upon their production. Yet we never meet these people—not usually, anyway.
This is what bugs me, this invisible wall between consumers and producers. It doesn’t seem right to me, doesn’t seem just, that these families I make books for can live their whole lives without really interacting and meeting the folks whom they depend on. They will never meet my co-workers, Ros and Kevin and Rosa and Ali. Yet they use these people to make their things for them.
This is happening everywhere, all the time. Those with are becoming increasingly isolated and separated from those without.
Naturally, you can expect me to have some ideas on what one possible solution to these problems might be. But for a variety of reasons, I want to stop here for now and solicit your own thoughts on the matter.
Just from the way I have framed this post, you can probably tell how I feel about this problem. But do you disagree? Is this really a problem, or am I being hypersensitive?
If you agree with me that something needs to be changed, well, what do you think the solution is? How do we in the Church, as Christians, address and engage the problem?
The comment button, as always, is below.