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Fine Bookmaking by Peter Thomas

Fine Bookmaking by Peter Thomas

The Private Library: Quarterly Journal for the Private Library Association. Fourth Series Vol.6:2 Summer 1993

"They don’t make them like they used to" is a common remark in general and too frequently used by bookpeople as well. I often hear the likes of: "Gutenberg’s 42 line Bible was perfect and all printing has gone down hill since then" or, "no book will ever match the Grabhorn’s Walt Whitman" or, "The Golden Cockerel’s Four Gospels is the best book ever made". When people say these sorts of things what are they talking about? They are talking about the composite, the combination of an Idea, paper, ink, type, and binding; which all work together to make what is called Fine printing.

I think that the term "Fine Printing" would often be better replaced by the concept of "Fine Bookmaking" or "Book Art", but because we are all comfortable with the term I will continue to use it in this presentation. A book neither starts nor ends with its printing, and though printing is one of the major criterion used to evaluate a book, the choice of materials, the design, and the skill of execution all have equal importance. It is the object as a whole that is being judged. Technically perfect printing on newsprint would never be considered "Fine Printing", though in fact it would be.

Victor Hammer, as quoted in the Anvil Press’s, Victor Hammer: An Artists Testament states, "You wonder about the ‘mystical’ quality of handiwork: it is that trace of life which lingers on in things made entirely by the human hand." And later he says, "The secret of the craftsman’s procedure is always to see connection with the whole form he works upon. He doesn’t know beforehand exactly what his work will look like-he will only know when he is finished."

I believe that Fine Printing is an art. The person who does it is an artist. A Fine Print book must be made by craftsmen and artists who are book artists. It cannot be done by a ‘designer’ who instructs ‘operators’ to run the machines. Fine Printing cannot be accomplished with a mass production mentality. I do not believe that a book must have an intelligible text to succeed as either fine printing or fine bookmaking. The text does not have to be understood to be well printed. Nor does it have to be understood to be made of the finest materials by the most skilled of craftsmen. The text is only something to read, and a book is much more than a vessel for literature. It is a sculptural object with multiple levels of aesthetic appeal. It has visual content in the binding, paper and ink, and intellectual content encoded on pages. I am proposing that as time passes the idea of what a book is will change. I believe that books will be judged by the standards we now use for sculpture, rather than primarily on the standards of literary value. Of course, I do not mean to imply that all work which is done by hand, using high quality materials, by a book artist, will be a successful example of Fine Printing or Book Art. Just as there are bad oil paintings and there are the Mona Lisas, there are unsuccessful books and there are the Four Gospels.

In the book, Early VS Modern Handmade papers, published by the Silver Buckle Press in Madison, Wisconsin (and this book itself is a good example of Fine Printing), the author, Tim Barrett, shared the thought process he used to determine why he was attracted to fifteenth century Italian papers. He wrote, "Was there really a substantial difference between the old [Italian] papers and the new [handmade papers] or was I simply pleased by the patina of age." His conclusion was, that beyond the quality of the raw materials used, it was the number of times that the old paper passed through the different hands of skilled craftsmen, the amount of labor intensive work that went into making each sheet, that gave the fifteenth century paper its appeal.

If I were to ask the same sort of question about Fine Printing: "Is there really a substantial difference between Fine Press books and good commercial books, or am I simply pleased by the patina of letterpress and limited edition work?" I think I would find an answer similar to Barrett’s, and one also in line with Victor Hammer’s comment on the ‘mystical’ quality of handiwork. I believe that beyond the choice of raw materials, the skill and vision of the craftsmen, as well as the quality and intensiveness of their labor, are things that make the final product a successful example of "Fine Printing". I believe that when such labor, high 2quality materials and a superior text are all combined in one book, then a masterpiece can be produced. An original Delftware teapot, and an imitation one I can buy at K-Mart, both hold water in the same way. But they are not the same. So it is with books.

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