Zines, Personal Publishing, the Nara Handbook, DIY Blogging

When I was in college I found out about zines. It's not like I was an avid zinester, or even an avid reader of them, but I stumbled on an article about them in Whole Earth Review (or maybe the Whole Earth Catalog) and was intrigued. This was all before the internet, when BBSs were still The Thing - if you wanted to read zines and weren't connected to some underground scene, the only way to get them was to mail off for them. I picked up a few, read them cover to cover multiple times, and thought they were pretty cool. A few years later I was in Japan teaching English in the JET Program, and started doing a little publishing of my own. <!-- SUMMARY_END -->

I didn't do a zine really, but the Nara Handbook, a book for other JET participants in Nara Prefecture, had a kind of zine flavor. It contained info on how to navigate the local trains, decode your electric bill, lists of English-speaking doctors and dentists, and directories of cool restaurants, shops, and other stuff that I and my fellow AETs discovered and wanted to share with each other and later generations of JETs.

At the end of my first year there, I somehow let myself get volunteered to edit the Nara Handbook, and ended up doing it twice more. The handbook I received when I arrived was, frankly, a mess. It was cool, but it was basically a very haphazardly photocopied zine. Over the next couple years I and a couple other AETs worked hard to make it easy to read and use, while keeping as much of that underground zine flava that we liked about the first edition. We researched cool places in the region, wrote about our travels, figured out how to make Microsoft Word (it wasn't evil yet, back in 1995) create an index, and had lots of fun with photocopiers and scanners. Each year we started out with a whole team of sorta-interested volunteers, and each year it came down to myself and another fanatic, racing to get everything proofread and edited before the deadline. I'll never forget the time when Eric Swanson turned to me as we walked down the stairs after a long editing session and said, "Someday you will understand that everything in this book is true." It was such a cool line that we stuck in the handbook in tiny type.

I haven't really kept up with the zine scene for awhile now. After my years in Japan I pursued a masters in Library and Information Studies at UCLA, worked at the Japanese American National Museum, went out into the dotcom industry, got laid off during the Bubble, and landed back at JANM, doing web development and system administration.

Then I had a couple back-to-back zine encounters. Cory Doctorow blogged about Small Beer Press's winter sale, and I ended up ordering a copy of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, which looks like it has that ol' zine flava. A couple days later, James Bennett's article about blogging with Django appeared on the Django community list. And the next day Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot led a tour of the GR50 exhibit at the museum and talked about how GR started out as a zine. Bennett's article got me thinking. Over the next couple days I bolted together a basic blogging app using Django, and here we are.

Don't know if I'll ever write as well as Eric, and I don't intend to try and start my own publishing and art empire, but I'll try putting my thoughts into words once in awhile and see what happens. Hopefully it'll make interesting reading, and maybe it'll even be useful for someone.