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Press News & an Editorial of sorts: May 2016
We have let too much time go by between these transmissions (although this has become traditional, even obligatory) and there is much ground to cover. The autumn (2015) was very busy, beginning with a fine visit from Richard and Cathy Wagener in September. We have long admired Richard’s engravings (his block ‘Shadow of the Hawk’ in the original Endgrain in 1996 remains one of our favourites) and this visit constituted the beginning of plans for Endgrain Editions 5, which will be devoted to an overview of Richard’s work comprising about one hundred engravings from every period of his career.
Not wishing to consign the blocks to the post, Richard and Cathy decided to drive up from California for a visit, bringing the blocks with them (above), and we spent a very happy few days in their company, full of conversation, good food and drink, fine music – and of course consultation.
Many of Richard’s blocks involve two colour work, and he and Jan worked through a number of proofs in order that Jan would understand precisely what Richard wanted.
There will be considerable experimentation with colour mixing along the way, which of course will fit very well with the lavish use of colour we will be exploiting in Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press, which is now in the early stages. We hope to begin work on Endgrain Editions 5: Richard Wagener in 2017.
The Indiegogo Campaign
In the autumn Bordering on the Sublime led us into a new venture into the world of on-line fundraising, the details of which were set out in the Press News for September 2015. The project had already been delayed for a matter of years while we finished current projects, and we found ourselves faced with financial constraints which made it hard to imagine how we would be able to afford the materials to start work on it. Bordering on the Sublime will be a big book in every sense – page size, length, research, textual preparation, and the complexity of its presswork. We have the borders themselves in hand, of course, which is the main thing, but we needed to buy paper and type, not to say production time, and were stumped as to a means of managing it.
We were therefore deeply grateful for the help and support of our daughter Polly and friends Camilla Coates and Sarah Race in getting this campaign going. Sarah, in the process of making a short documentary film on the press (further news to be announced) simultaneously – and very generously – filmed a six-minute video for the campaign page. It must be said that, having a deep suspicion of anything to do with computers, we were at first pessimistic about the chances of the fundraiser’s success, but to our bewildered surprise and gratitude the campaign galloped handily past our goal and considerably further, which has meant that the paper has been purchased, the type is ordered and due to arrive by the summer, and we were given some breathing space to work on layouts and writing. David Jury’s superb text for the introductory chapters of the book arrived last year and has gone through a few revisions (at David’s insistence, not ours). In the meantime, I have been working on my part of the text, and continuing with research to find out more about the day to day running of the Curwen Press during the period when these borders were in use. We finally anticipate having the first pages in the press by mid-summer, at last.
We want to take this opportunity to offer our sincere and warmest thanks to the many people who contributed to the campaign at every level – a good proportion of them strangers to us – and we are looking forward to meeting the four contributors who chose to come to the press for workshops in the coming months. We also hope that all who chose the various ‘perks’ which we offered have received and are enjoying them.
Present work in hand, and changing news
Since work on Bordering on the Sublime will take at least a year, probably longer, we always knew that we would have to produce at least two smaller projects to keep food on the table while it was in the press. The first of these, The Splendour of a Morning, is now in hand.
This is a collection of thirty-eight poems by C. P. Cavafy, details of which may be found here. David Smulders, the translator of the poems, has entered enthusiastically into the spirit of the project, providing us with a fine introduction to the book and kindly agreeing to translate a further poem, ‘Ithaka’, a favourite of ours, to add to the previous selection.
The lovely Greek type, Antigone, arrived on Christmas Eve (what could be better?), and after laying it into its cases in January, I started setting. Although I approached the work with excitement evenly mingled with trepidation, it has proved surprisingly easy to adapt to the new language and case lays. Fortunately for us, Anthony Hirst, the editor of the Greek texts of Cavafy’s work, has not only given us permission to use his edition, but has generously offered to proof-read the Greek texts as well. (This was a considerable relief to Jan, who, when I suggested that she learn some basic Greek in order to read proofs, reacted like a grande dame goosed in an elevator. Casca’s time-honoured remark, ‘For mine own part, it was Greek to me’, came to mind.)
Unfortunately, work on The Splendour of a Morning and much else had a setback this spring when Jan injured her back in early March. After a session with a physiotherapist injured her still further, she had to stop printing altogether to allow it time to heal, which meant that for about six weeks no printing at all was done. This has put everything considerably behind schedule – we had hoped to have The Splendour of a Morning in the bindery by mid-May – but it has also given us the opportunity to do preliminary work on a further project. Splendour will, with luck, should now be out of the press in June, and we will hope to have copies from the bindery beginning in July.
We had long ago decided that in this quatercentenary year of Shakespeare’s death we should produce something to celebrate his life and work. We originally planned to publish an edition of The Rape of Lucrece, but for a number of reasons, not least the high rhetoric and rather gloomy nature of the poem and the fact that it does not lend itself naturally to illustration, we abandoned the plan. In other circumstances, with less on our plates, we would have chosen a play, but that was not an option. So we have decided to produce a collection of the songs from the plays, which are varied and give multifarious pleasures, as well as leading readers inexorably back to the works from which they come.
Then came the question of an illustrator. I first met John Lawrence over thirty years ago. We got on famously – not difficult with John, who is the most affable and genial of men – and agreed then, as we have at every subsequent meeting over the years, that we really would have to do something together one day. This at last seems the perfect opportunity. He agreed at once, we have sent him a list of the texts we had decided to include together with a CD of Elizabethan settings of some of the songs for atmosphere, and we await results.
John’s work will be familiar to many readers, as he has illustrated over two hundred books, among them The Everyman Book of English Folk Tales, Treasure Island (for Walker Illustrated Classics), scores of children’s books, many Folio Society editions, including The Once and Future King, Watership Down, Robinson Crusoe and Tristram Shandy, & the collector’s editions of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series for David Fickling Books – not forgetting one of our favourites, Rabbit and Pork – Rhyming Talk, a delightful children’s story based on Cockney rhyming slang. He has twice won the Francis Williams Award for Illustration from the Victoria and Albert Museum. We are very excited about the prospect of working with him.
Oxford and points beyond
In October we set off on our bi-annual pilgrimage to the Oxford Book Fair, this time with some extended plans. I went over a week earlier than Jan, on a flight made all the happier by the generosity of a lady across the aisle who insisted on supplying me with double scotches at her own enthusiastic rate of absorption, which made even flying seem a wholesome and sensible occupation. I then spent a most enjoyable day and night in London with Joe and Jane Whitlock Blundell. This included, along with the usual branching and delicious conversation with fine friends, a riveting recital of Ravel at Wigmore Hall by the young French pianist Bertrand Chamayou. (ADVT: I note that Chamayou has just released a double-CD set of all Ravel’s piano music which I recommend earnestly to anyone interested in such things.)
I rendezvoused with Jan and Simon Brett and Juliet Wood at Heathrow, and we went to stay with Simon and Juliet for a happy and refreshing day or two before going to Oxford for the fair. Book fairs are the only opportunities outside our own home when we can meet our subscribers, make new acquaintances in the fine press world, and show our books to people who can actually look at them and talk to us about them. We first met many of our long-term subscribers and supporters at one or another fair, and we welcome the chance to see the extended circle of friends we have among printer-publishers like ourselves, many of whom we have known for forty years but only ever actually meet at Oxford or Oak Knoll or Codex.
A sidebar about Shakespearean productions, diabolical and heavenly
A few days in London gave us the opportunity to see two Shakespeare plays (after all, what else would one do in London?) which demonstrated between them the extraordinary elasticity of possible interpretation and its effects. One of them, the National Theatre As You Like It, was comprehensively foul. Some malign imp of literary theory had suggested to the director that the sensible setting for the play should be a 21st century corporate office, complete with rows of desks, computer stations with continual brightly coloured displays, and people in Star Trek-style uniforms whizzing about with papers looking important. A shredder was much in use (although unfortunately not for the Director’s notes). The office boy who was watering the plants emerged from his directorial chrysalis and was revealed as Orlando. The wrestling match took place on a mat in the office – as of course is typical in today’s offices. The move to the Forest of Arden was effected by the entire contents of the office set – desks, computers, chairs, plants, the lot – being hoisted aloft on heavy cables, where they remained dangling over the heads of the naturally apprehensive actors for the remainder of the evening, representing, we assumed, the forest canopy.
All of this might have been ignored had the director bothered to give the actors any sense of who they were, what they were doing, or how they were to do it. The leads, most of whom clearly had talent, worked manfully (and womanfully) to make sense of their situations, but discussions of metaphorical marriage, the nature of love, and courtly behaviour versus country manners pursued while standing beneath a ton or two of pendant office accoutrements inevitably lacked conviction. It was decidedly not as we liked it.
Two days before this, however, we had seen one of the best productions of any Shakespearean play in our experience. This was Kenneth Branagh’s company at the Garrick performing The Winter’s Tale. This play is a favourite with us (as, lamentably in the circumstances, is As You Like It). This production was incomparably fine. Branagh as Leontes touched the nerve of the character precisely: a man whose virtues are so fine-tuned as to be dangerously fragile, as extreme in anger as in love, and tragically unreasoned. Miranda Raison as Hermione gave the best performance of the character we have seen, her response to the palpably false charges of adultery brought by her husband a contempt distinctly reserved for the litigation and not aimed at Leontes himself, whom she pitied and continued to love. But the centre of the whole piece was Paulina, played by Dame Judi Dench with a luminous grasp of the essential pith of the character, which quite simply is an abiding sense of justice and mercy. Paulina is often played as a termagant, but here she was a stern but merciful healer. She opened the meaning of the play wider than I have ever known it. We were thunderstruck, literally speechless for some minutes after we left the theatre. I can remember only two such experiences in a theatre before.
The state of the fine press book
Back to books. As time has passed, and especially in the last five years with the world-wide recession, sales at Fine Press Book Fairs, and sales in general, have fallen off a little. Our experiences at Codex, the important and popular press fair in Berkeley, and at Oxford over the past two fairs have been somewhat dispiriting. Not only us, but many other presses who have long shown at them both, have been disappointed in diminished sales and, more disturbing, a diminution in informed interest.
The economy is not the only reason for this falling off. As the novelties of the internet and the E-book have eaten into the habit of reading and the appetite for books, fewer people than before are as interested in the traditional crafts of the physical book. I believe this will pass; indeed, there is already evidence that interest in E-readers has levelled off. But a greater impact on the sales of fine press books has resulted from something else. At Codex in particular, there has been an increasing emphasis on what are generally called ‘artist’s books’ – experimental, largely graphic rather than verbal, and implicitly set against the traditional books produced by what used to be called ‘private presses’, but which have lately been referred to more often as ‘fine press publishers’, of which we are representative.
Although the subject has been widely discussed and written about, it may be worth taking a moment to discuss the nature of the ‘artist’s book’, as far as I can understand it. First I should note that this is often, in our world, a contentious subject. Elizabeth Gaskell, at the beginning of Wives and Daughters, has a lovely phrase describing the villagers at the Earl and Countess’s annual gathering, who were happy, but fatigued, at having to be on their best behaviour all afternoon: she described them as ‘talking on stilts’, and that is rather how I feel in discussing what is called ‘the artist’s book’.
The term itself, ‘artist’s book’ (the placement of the apostrophe is still debated), is demonstrably vague, but no more precise one has so far turned up – and I say ‘vague’ as meaning very generally applied, rather than unconsidered. Even some of our books have been described as ‘artist’s books’, which emphatically they are not – as far as I understand the term. The growth of ‘artist’s book’ as a phrase has been accompanied by the rise of the phrase ‘book arts’. (The use of the word ‘art’ has become distressingly common, particularly in reference to the manual skills involved in making books.) ‘Book arts’ apparently refers to any of the crafts associated with the production of conventional books by artisans – crafts such as typography, hand-setting, presswork, and binding – as well as to those more usually employed in avowed ‘artist’s books’, which may include paper molding and engineering, laminations, experimental binding and box techniques, and many others. ‘Artist’s book’ seems usually to be applied to a book or a ‘book object’ which has as its chief interest a graphic or visual – sometimes even ‘sculptural’ – element, often used to some thematic or polemical purpose, with the characteristics usually thought to be natural to a book, such as text and sequential reading, considered to be of less central importance, or of no importance at all. And ‘artist’s book’ is not, so far as I can tell, to be confused with the livre d’artiste, which has an older and comparatively more traditional character.
Of course all this is hardly new. The ‘artist’s book’ has been in the air for many years now. (We often find ourselves referred to as ‘artists’, rather than ‘craftsmen’ or ‘artisans’.) A hundred years ago the Futurists, and later the Dadaists, experimented with book form, and many ‘artist’s books’ today seem to be concerned with a reappraisal of the codex as a central cultural structure, especially in the European tradition. Perhaps it is precisely because of its place in that tradition. Iconoclasm of this sort is common. European tradition and culture has come under heavy fire in the last forty or fifty years in North America and even in Europe, largely through revisionist historical theorizing about Western culture, almost all negative, by a new breed – the populist public intellectual. Like most such uninformed preoccupations, this has been suffered to thrive for lack of considered opposition, in turn the result of the severely diminished presence of European history, literature, music, and art in North American public education.
Where the codex is concerned, such ‘reappraisal’ is often violently presented. I recall a fairly large ‘artist’s book’ which was entered in a juried exhibition for which I was one of several judges, whose ‘pages’, joined on one side so that they could be turned, consisted of double layers of wire mesh with pieces of broken mirror held between them. There were, so far as I can remember, no words or images provided; these were presumably to result from the broken reflections of the person holding the piece, or the oaths consequent on cutting oneself on broken glass. I suppose there is a certain crude ingenuity about this and other such objects, but one has a dawning sense that the emperor has no clothes. I was and am at a loss to understand why a serious organization concerned with books should consider such submissions to be relevant to the purpose. Another judge declared himself satisfied that if the person submitting this piece was pleased to call it a book, then it was a book – rather along the lines of Koko’s argument that if the Mikado says that a man is dead, then he is dead for all practical purposes, so why waste time executing him?
Can we not agree, without seeming terminally philistine, that although it may be in some sense about the book, such a piece in fact is not a book, whatever else it may be? There is nothing wrong, after all, with something’s not being a book: my bicycle is not a book, nor is a loaf of bread, and neither is the worse for it. A skein of tangled multi-coloured telephone wires with slips of paper containing random words attached to them is not a book either, but that is a tolerably accurate description of another of the submissions to the same exhibition. Clearly there is an impulse here to question the nature of two things: the codex as a structure, and the book as a cultural icon. Such critical scrutiny is, and should be, one function of art. But if the central element of books has always been that they have content (as I would argue is the case) rather than simply visual or sensual impact, a questioning of the book which completely abandons its central element is surely a reduction ad absurdum. It is not even as cogent a response as judging a book by its cover: it is more like describing chocolates by commenting on the colour of the box.
All of this said, many ‘artist’s books’ are beautiful and fascinating, whether they are books or not. And there are many examples of books produced by fine typographers, illustrators, printers, and editors which distinctly aim to expand the apparent limits of the codex as a form, using the form as a platform: Peter Koch’s Sacajawea, Claire Van Vliet’s Aunt Sallie’s Lament, Richard Bigus’s Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, Arion Press’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and many of the productions of Robin Price, Julia Chen’s Flying Fish Press, Susan Allix, Carolee Campbell’s Ninja Press, and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press, initiate a list which could go on for pages.
My sense of things is that these experimental pieces of what we might call ‘book sculpture’ or ‘kinetic sculpture’, which relate to the book sometimes directly but often peripherally, will eventually form a sub-genre having a relation to the codex similar to the relation of concrete poetry to literary poetry. It seems to me we should be grateful for this new development, but remain unconfused as to the distinctions between them and books.
The following ‘editorial of sorts’ may have some relevance to this discussion.
An editorial of sorts
Earlier this year a Master’s student in Publishing at Simon Fraser University wrote to me to ask for my thoughts on why letterpress printing and publishing were still important in 2016. This is a question which has been put to us in many ways by all sorts of people since we established Barbarian Press nearly forty years ago. Usually we make some short answer which fills the immediate conversational lull. However, this student’s request was considered and sprung from real interest, and so I took some time to answer it. Re-reading my reply, it seemed to both Jan and me that it might well be of interest to those of you who visit our website regularly, and perhaps more importantly to those who are encountering it for the first time. Here, slightly edited, is what I said:
I suppose, first of all, I wonder what you mean by ‘important’ when you ask why letterpress printers and publishers are important in 2016. Positive human activity and endeavour is always important. However, in this context I suspect (although I may be wrong) that the underlying supposition is that something is important principally (or at least in part) if it is economically viable and forward-looking. My counter to that would be to say that the first importance in good work is that it be useful and that it embrace the skill and pride of the worker.
Letterpress printing looks back to the very beginnings of printing in the west. (I assume you are aware that printing from movable type was invented in China about four centuries before Gutenberg (although it was impractical for the Chinese language), and was carried further in Korea after the invention of Hangul, a syllabary system, made the crafting of movable types practical.) As such, the growth of typography, the rationalization of the codex, and universal literacy trace a good deal of their origin and development through the progress of letterpress technology. Letterpress therefore is a reminder and a continuation of the larger momentum and character of human culture. It also involves crafts and skills which are the basis for an understanding of print design, typography, and literacy, and which have been instrumental in devising and making possible the transmission of knowledge and information right down to the present. (It is essential to note that ‘knowledge’ and ‘information’ are not synonymous.)
But I think you want to know why Jan and I at Barbarian Press, and many others like us, choose to use letterpress technology to make books when it is so much faster, cheaper, and easier to produce them by offset or digital printing, or to render their contents by digital technology on screens? The answer to that probably lies – at least it does for us – in those words ‘faster, cheaper, and easier’.
First, as to speed: there is an old Latin tag, festina lente, which means ‘Make haste slowly’. It suggests that the best way to create something, whether it be a piece of writing, a plan of action, a musical composition, an architectural drawing, a picture, or any number of other things or processes – even a book – is to let it take its natural time. All work suggests and finds its pace, just as all thought does, and the process of allowing things to find their rhythm is one of thoughtfulness and attention. A book produced by a commercial publishing house is generally chosen for publication by an editorial board, some of whom will have read the complete book, but most of whom will have read only a reader’s report, and possibly a sample chapter and a synopsis. The board’s decisions will be influenced in very large part by the sales department, who are charged with selling the final product, and whose fingers are on the pulse of the buying public, which often means the lowest common denominator. The designer (who may have read the book, but often has not) chooses a typeface and specs the type for the typesetter. The typesetter, working with InDesign or Quark (if anyone still uses Quark) or some other digital typesetting program, creates a grid into which the digital text is dumped, holus-bolus, and then arranged – which involves straightening and tidying the edges, sometimes (but not often enough) hanging punctuation, perhaps avoiding widows and orphans (those opening or closing lines of paragraphs left stranded at the tops or bottoms of pages), and occasionally even avoiding rivers in the page. The typographical designer will usually vet the results, but a good typesetter is often the maker of a book. The same or another designer is able to exercise a little creativity in setting up the title page, but the cover is often done by someone else, and those decisions are again approved by the sales department, who have almost certainly not read the book, but whose omnipotence is unquestioned.
Designing books as I do, with metal typefaces which are then set by hand, letter by letter, is admittedly a luxury: I’m quite aware that if all books were designed and set that way there would be far fewer books than there are. (I also wonder, sometimes, if that would be altogether a bad thing. Possibly not.) Every letter and space and point in every book I have designed has been set separately, and by the time I have finished setting a book you must believe that I know the text intimately. I am also able to fine tune and polish the setting and even the overall design as I go. Jan prints the book on one of our presses, usually a Vandercook Universal III, but we also have a smaller Vandercook, two vertical platens, and three hand presses, and we occasionally use those. They are all hand-fed, one sheet at a time; the handpresses are also hand-inked. All this takes time, and the care Jan takes is such that she is constantly receiving compliments on her presswork, especially in the printing of wood engravings, in which we specialize to a degree.
Then there is the matter of expense. Ours is obviously a costly way to produce books. Visitors often remark on how ‘labour intensive’ it is. This is a phrase I abhor, and for a central reason: it is invariably used negatively. It suggests that the working process is tiresome and best avoided or skimped if at all possible, and that the only important thing is the end result. Labouring intensively, working intently, paying close attention to process and finding satisfaction in it, simply means that one is taking time to do a job well, and such work is consequently expensive. We have to charge enough for the books we produce to live on, and that means that a book which may be quite small might cost several hundred dollars, because it may take us several months to make it. However, we also produce only a limited number of copies, generally between 100 and 150, and we have a list of subscribers to the press who agree to buy one copy of everything. They understand the process, and so the price is also no surprise to them. It is largely a function of time: if we could produce one of our books in a week they would cost far less. But they would not look as they do, would not have the design and character they have. In short, they would not represent the thought that has gone into the books we actually publish.
I haven’t meant to imply that there are no great books produced by commercial publishers, because of course there are. A great book is first of all ‘great’ because of its contents, and while there is a vast amount of trash published every year – every day, I dare say – there is a modest proportion of fine publishing, and a very small amount of great publishing, every year as well. But the economic necessities of commercial publishing are such that these are very rarely beautiful examples of printing, binding, and design. Design wins out as a rule, but fine design is often compromised by poor materials and inferior typesetting. Still, it is important to acknowledge quality where it exists, and to be thankful that good books are still to be had. Books which are great in every aspect have always been very rare, and are usually very costly to produce and to buy.
Seeing the individuality of the maker is a recognition of a particular beauty, and I think that is the case because we are each drawn to other people, to the trail of them in their work. Our books, we have been told, look like no other press’s books – and I can say the same thing about the many books we own by other presses: they look like the work of this or that other person . . . often our friends, sometimes strangers, but human beings, individuals. Roy Daniells, the Canadian poet, has a line in one of his sonnets which reads, ‘We are one only, each in ourselves, alone.’ That loneliness is also a community of people who are alone, but seeking contact. Craft work is one way to find that contact.
Finally, I think what we and others like us do is important because we are reminding those who might not know – or who, once knowing, may have forgotten – that holding a newly made book in 2016 you are in communication with millions of people through the ages who have also held books, wondered at the contents, argued with them, loved them, quoted them, and from them learned more of what we all are. This is not the sort of thinking which many people think important these days. But clearly it is important to a significant number of people, and given what that says about those people’s understandings of history and culture, of beauty, of admiration for thought, or simply about being human, they are people worth the work we do and the time we take to do it. Or so we think.
I didn’t think when I began this letter that I would go on so long, or take so much of your time. But then time is really all we have, and your question has persuaded me to take the time to think about these things again, so I’m grateful to you for asking. I hope I’ve been of some help to you. Thank you for writing.
And thank you all for reading.
Crispin Elsted, May 2016