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Reflections by Peter Thomas

Reflections by Peter Thomas. California State Library Foundation Bulletin, July, 1992

"They don’t make them like they used to." You hear people saying this all the time. And book people are no different. I often hear the likes of this, "Gutenberg’s forty-two 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 often called fine printing.

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 that 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. Of course, this does not imply that all work which is done by hand, using high quality materials, by a book artist, will be a successful example of book art. Just as there are bad oil paintings and there are the Mona Lisas, there are unsuccessful books and there are books like Granite and Cypress.

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 papers. He wrote, "Was there really a substantial difference between the old papers and the new or was I simply pleased by the patina of age." Though it may be rash to try to summarize a whole book in one sentence, his conclusion was that aside from the qualities of the raw materials used, it was the number of times that the old paper passed through different hands while being made, the amount of work that went into making it, that makes the fifteenth century paper so remarkable. 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 the quality of labor intensiveness is one of the more important factors in making a book a successful example of fine printing.

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. I think that the term "fine printing" is often used when a speaker would be better served by the concept of "fine bookmaking". In these instances the word "fine" is used in the same way as when referring to painting or sculpture as a "fine art". It is describing a pursuit that is not merely mechanical, not simply a craft, but something much more complex, and this I call the "book arts".

So how did I get started? How did I get interested in the book arts? It’s not a simple story, but life is that way. In high school I was on the pre-collegiate track, which did not allow much time for art classes. But I was interested in writing fairy tales, having long hair and wearing funny clothes. Perhaps these interests were what lead me to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where as a modern Don Quixote I found my destiny. When in college, I became got involved in the Faire as a volunteer actor, and with a couple of thousand other people I played a part in recreating an Elizabethan market village. What does this have to do with book arts? For me it was the beginning. Actors slept on hay bales and craftspeople had booths. I wanted a better place to sleep so I needed a craft. The only thing resembling an Elizabethan craft I could do was write fairy tales, so I applied for a booth where I would write and print a fairy tale with four beginnings, four middles and four endings, and teach the visitors how to bind it into a book. My proposal was accepted. I wrote the story and got a friend to print it at his fathers print shop. Then I had to learn how to bind books.

I went to the library, to the 600 section, to find some books on bookbinding. Of course I got distracted and found myself reading a book titled, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft by Dard Hunter. When I read that the first papermill in England was built in 1492, I thought to myself that papermaking would be even better than bookbinding as a craft at the Faire. But since I had already committed to bookbinding I thought, "I’ll just learn both." My early follies make good stories to tell on long evenings, but now I will only say that as I taught, I learned.

I had as my goal to be able to make paper and bind books as they did in the sixteenth century. I don’t know how I actually learned to make books. Mostly it was just doing it, being prodded on by the childhood memory of my neighbor saying again and again, "If you are going to do something, do it right." One day, between teaching classes, I made a few blank books. They sold immediately and so I made more, and more, and more. An old bookbinder stopped by and shared with me his wisdom, "You can’t buy experience." I didn’t buy it, my customers did.

I continued my eclectic studies at UCSC. In the Mc Henry Library foyer stood an old acorn shaped iron handpress. William Everson, master printer and poet laureate of Kresge College who dressed in buckskin and bear claws, taught students to use the press while printing fine press books. I didn’t know what "fine press" was, but thought to myself, "Since I am making books and paper, I should know how to print." With several other students I worked as an apprentice. No questions were asked and no answers were given. Everson led us through the mysteries of the "Black Art" in silences broken by cries to the gods for mercy. In the end we knew typography and printing and the desire for perfection.

I bought my own press and with Donna’s help I began to print; first a broadside and then when we had enough type, a book. Everson encouraged the printing of books, "It is by ephemera," he said, "by keepsakes, that both the amateur and the professional are today most easily seduced from the true end of printing..." We did not use a press name for that first book. But our second book, The Tale of Cara-sou and His Magic Word, had The Good Book Press on the title page. One of my favorite childhood fairy tales was The Good Sword. In this story a poor shepherd, with his dying breath bequeaths his son the sword which hangs over their doorway, saying it will never fail him in time of need. We wanted a press that would never fail us and so we called our Challenge MP15 proof press the Good Book Press. The name also stood to remind us of our goal: to make good books. With this in mind we printed the following announcement: It is with great pleasure that we take this opportunity to acquaint you with the work of Peter and Donna Thomas who produce books and paper under the imprint of The Good Book Press. Were one to ask them what makes a Good Book, they might reply, "Beautiful paper, crisp printing, a binding that opens easily..." It is their goal to create books in the tradition of the great private presses: deluxe, limited editions, made of the finest materials, produced with the highest standards of quality. Peter makes the paper from cotton rags. These are pulped in a hollander beater, then mixed in more water. Using a mould & deckle the fiber is separated from the water. It is then couched onto a felt, pressed & hung to dry. Donna cuts linoleum for illustration or ornament. Together they set the type which is letterpress printed on a hand operated printing press. They also hand bind the books. Pages are folded and sewn together using a needle & thread. The bindings are leather or other quality materials, constructed in traditional methods which insure the book will open easily and lay flat. They employ their skills making miniature books (under three inches), larger books, and broadsides (posters with type and illustration). Because they execute every aspect of manufacture, all their work is unique and each piece can easily be recognized as another fine product from The Good Book Press.

In 1980 Donna and I made a small book, Yotan’s Vision, from scraps of English handmade paper salvaged from the Lime Kiln Press’s Granite and Cypress. I showed it to Muir Dawson who I had met through our mutual interest in papermaking and the coincidence that his son was in my graduating class at UCSC. He was not very interested but suggested I show it to his brother. Without much hope, I showed it to Glen Dawson. He looked at the book, pulled out a ruler, measured it and said, "If you can make it a quarter of an inch shorter I will buy twenty." I was in shock. Luckily we had not bound the whole edition, and although we didn’t want to trim the perfectly proportioned margins, we made him twenty books.

By 1991 we had made fifty different books, some miniature and some full sized. Looking back I realize how fortunate I was to have worked with Everson when I was just beginning. As one of Everson’s student apprentices at UCSC, my job was to help bring his visions into concrete forms. We did not have much creative input. He would bring his ideas, brew on the problems till they were solved, then we would do the work. He showed us his early books and I marveled at the scope of his skills. A Privacy of Speach is in my opinion a masterpiece. He printed and bound the book with skills learned only from books and what he had picked up at Waldport or while working in his father’s printing shop as a child. In a recent interview Everson said to me," My printing is always a surprise to me. I don’t know where I got my aptitude or where it came from. It’s a mystery to me. I seem to have unerring typographical taste, but I can’t estimate its source." We watched him work and learned by osmosis rather than rote. I remember the stories Everson told as we worked. He spoke of the books he had started, but never completed, because they did not come up to his expectations. And I saw a lesson to learn in the story of his Psalter. This was a book that he was not satisfied with and did not complete, yet when his abandoned pages were bound into a book it was still considered one of the masterpieces of American printing.

As I look at my typographical preferences, I see Everson’s biases. I can’t avoid them. Not that many of my books look like Everson’s. It’s more the use of some of his basic design concepts (e.g. limiting the mixture of type faces, using only basic colors and lining up elements of the book from cover to cover). Without his influence I might never have known to strive for perfection. I was lucky that he was a genius and not a second rate hack.

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