Monday, December 04, 2006

Making books

I gladly admit my strong preference for printed books over ebooks. I’m sure there are people for whom ebooks are a great convenience, just as there are people for whom using an automatic breadmaker is preferable to kneading dough by hand. I’m not one of those people.

Words matter, as I endlessly remind myself and you; but the physical substantiation of words matters, too. At least it does to me.

So it is always a pleasure to get out from behind the keyboard and run my hands over books, all kinds of books, and examine them as made objects, as expressions of craft. Saturday I caught a train to New York and walked a couple of blocks to the Small Press Center for the Nineteenth Annual Independent and Small Press Book Fair, where several dozen small publishers displayed their wares in their own booths. The publishers ran the gamut (I love the ) from self-publishing authors with a single title to established presses with a dozen or more current titles. Many were houses that specialize in a particular field or genre or viewpoint.

Let me focus on the books themselves, though. On the ridiculous end were those of an author for whom writing is therapy and book sales are irrelevant. She is cognizant of only the words she writes and she is interested only in readers who share her disdain for the physical world. She has, she told me, had her “books” produced by the same copy shop for the last three decades; never mind any advances is technology over that time. These books consisted of copies, for which the author pays three cents a page, on letter-size paper, of whatever randomly formatted, word-processor-generated pages she happens to come up with, affixed to each other with some sort of desktop tape-binding machine. Okay, it’s good to have a baseline for comparison, although this baseline was quite a bit lower than what any sane person would expect to find at a book fair.

Moving right along, I encountered some self-published books that slavishly followed Dan Poynter’s guidelines and others that would have been greatly improved had they done so.

(Stay with me. This gets better.)

At the next rung were small publishers who had perhaps designed their first books themselves or perhaps paid for a book to be designed once and had then stayed with the same design through several more books. I understand that this is an economical approach, and I don’t want to discount it entirely. However, what drew my attention was the amateurishness and ungainliness of these designs and their inappropriateness to the books’ contents.

And then there were the publishers who have some respect for the aesthetic sensibilities of the reader. They showed books that were obviously designed by professionals and printed by quality book printers. Yes! There are still bibliophiles in the publishing business. That’s good news, and I celebrate it.

Finally, there were two publisher-craftsmen who manufacture (manus = hand; facere = make) books. And these were the only two exhibitors from whom I purchased anything—because I was incapable of not purchasing anything from them.

Ed Rayher runs Swamp Press, in Northfield, Massachusetts. He is one of a handful of craft printers producing letterpress books in the United States. Ed is a young man, which suggests that he may continue to refine his craft for some decades to come. That would be a good thing, as it would be a shame for the technologies he exploits to disappear altogether. His operation is exciting and yet, to me, a bit disappointing, too. Ed casts type, for his own use and for sale to other letterpress printers, using a Monotype machine. This is not quite the same as recreating the technology of traditional type foundries, but it may be as close as a modern craftsman can come and still make a living. Monotype sorts are quite similar to foundry sorts, and the differences are of vanishingly small importance.

Ed also engraves his own matrices on occasion, for the casting of special sorts. I don’t think he starts the process by cutting a steel punch, but nobody has done that commercially in quite some time. So we can’t fault him for that.

He prints on elderly letterpress equipment. Let’s call it obsolete but not antique, although Ed might quibble with me on both counts. But these are mechanical (that is, motor-driven), commercial, twentieth-century presses that are a far cry from the hand press you may have encountered while touring Colonial Williamsburg or Old Sturbridge Village.

Under the Swamp Press imprint as well as for other clients, Ed typesets, prints, and hand binds beautiful little books. He chooses papers that enhance the three-dimensional quality of metal type. Books this exquisite, though, deserve to be meticulously edited and proofread. Alas, they are not. When printers and publishers were one and the same, it was easy to assign blame. But when publishing and printing evolved into separate functions, the rule of thumb was that the publisher controlled the content and the printer produced what the publisher asked for. In a small press operation like Ed’s, I think it makes sense for the printer to revert at least partially to the older model and reassert his role in the editorial transaction. As I said before, Ed is young. I expect that as he and his press mature, the quality of the books will continue to improve from their already near-perfect state.

Malachi McCormick
is a writer, translator, calligrapher, and maker of books. He is Irish, by way of Staten Island, and I don’t know whether the charming brogue in which he converses with strangers at book fairs is his everyday idiolect, but it is delightful nonetheless.

Malachi cannot be bothered with typography at all. His work is all in his own calligraphic hand, a traditional Irish script that we usually call uncial, and features covers and slipcases of handmade paper. These small books are not nearly so well constructed as Ed Rayher’s are, but they are much livelier and quite beautiful in their own, more primitive, way.

Beautiful objects inspire us to create other beautiful objects. That alone is reason enough to own them.


Reeder said...

Wow! That must have been phenomenal to have witnessed so much beautiful literature. I agree whole heartedly with you when you stated that ebooks really hold little comparison to having the incredible feeling of reading a published novel. One can't replace that smell that new novels seem to have or that enjoyment of curling up in bed with a great book. Therefore, I agree that although ebooks serve a convienent purpose they will never replace the real thing.

Kristen King, Inkthinker said...

Beautiful objects inspire us to create other beautiful objects. That alone is reason enough to own them.

I couldn't have said it better myself. Great post.


Dick Margulis said...

Thanks to both of you!