For this book set I was drawn to the The Doves Bible and Harold McGrath’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I enjoyed the simplicity of both books and the cleanness of their page layouts. Based on his essay “The Ideal Book” I know that Morris would have an entirely different opinion on each book. The text of both books is published in Roman font, which Morris would have been opposed to, claiming that the type contributed to illegibility. Of the two books, the Doves Bible would have been the least offensive to Morris. The minimalism of the page layout contrasts with the stunningly decorated pages of Morris’ publication of Chaucer; however, it suggests the simplicity of the incunables that he admired. In his essay Morris claims “that a book quite un-ornamented can look actually and positively beautiful, and not merely un-ugly,” suggesting that he may have found beauty in the cleanness of the pages of the Doves Bible that reference older text through their strict justification and usage of black and red (67).


Contrastingly, Morris would have found great fault with McGrath’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as it demonstrated the type of industrial manufacturing that he objected to. While the spacing of the Doves Bible is relatively tight despite the airiness of the Roman font, the lines of Huck Finn are noticeably separated. Morris would have commended the pages of the Doves Bible for their handmade quality, and would have criticized Huck Finn for its commercial paper.



I agree with Morris when he states that an un-ornamented book can possess beauty, as I find beauty in the controlled simplicity of the Doves Bible; however, I am unable to relate to his opinions on illegibility. Perhaps it is my modern perspective, but I found the published pages of Chaucer to be the most difficult text to read of the books that we viewed. The business of each page and the closeness of the thick, black text made the words difficult to focus on and decipher, but I also have very poor eyesight. After seeing many crumbling modern books whose pages have acidified I can understand Morris’ criticism of industrial manufacturing, and admire the enduring pages of the Doves Bible. However, I do not think that the value of such books as McGrath’s Huck Finn should be entirely written off because of their manufactured nature. The text and the detailed illustrations are still well crafted and still hold meaning.


Book sets 2 and 3

“Well, I lay it down, first, that a book quite un-ornamental can look actually and positively beautiful, and not merely un-ugly…” William Morris, The Ideal Book, 67

The books that sprung from Fine Printing movement were beautiful because of the time and thought that went into their design. Each element of a book was carefully crafted; each decision made during its creation was made consciously and deliberately. For William Morris, and like-minded printers, Fine Printing was about paying homage to the art of the book and the return to traditional pre-industrial printing techniques.  Littlejourneys to the homes of eminent artists: Raphael by Elbert Hubbard (Book Set 2) exemplifies many of the hallmarks of the Fine Printing esthetic. I will start with the typographic layout of Raphael because, as Morris said, it “is a most important point.”IMG_5646IMG_5655

Morris held that modern printers had disregarded the importance the page layout and the integral role it played in a reader’s experience of a book.  Pages are rarely viewed alone – more often than not, we view page spreads.  This means that we are always looking at two pages at once. Morris believed that pages should be printed with margins that suit the way in which we view them. Raphael’s pages are printed on the page following traditional margin proportions of a Fine Print book – the left margin being the smallest with the top and right margins progressing in size, ending with the largest margin on the bottom. When looked at as a spread, the type flows out from the center fold, creating a unified feeling that is lost when a printer “dumps down his page” in the middle of the paper.

Raphael opens with a dense decorative woodcut, but besides that is modestly “ornamented” which puts the focus on the typography and what it does for the text. The type is a true black which lends itself to being easily read. The only problem with the text was the lack of leading separating paragraph changes.. As a modern reader, I had a hard time with the paragraph symbol notations, but had I been reading it at the time of its printing, 1902, maybe this would not have bothered me. Printed on course handmade paper, Raphael fits easily in the hand, which leads me to believe its printer intended it to be a book that could be enjoyed anywhere the owner chose to bring it. Between the letter press type, handmade paper, and thoughtful decoration, it is clear that a great deal of care went into making this book beautiful – something Morris surly would have appreciated.


Emily McVarish’s Was Here does not technically fall into the Fine Printing family, but I think that it is still quite relevant to our discussion.  Was Here is composed of about 65 pages, with four different fonts printed in six colors at varying sizes.  At first glance, this book would make both Morris and Russem ill, but McVarish’s creative use of typography actually serves the text (arguably) better than any of the more traditional books we have looked at (in my opinion). I am going to attempt to recreate my experience with this book in order to support my claim:


I approached Was Here like I would any book; I sat down, opened it up, and began to read its pages chronologically. I felt like I was reading a poem, but I wasn’t sure how all of the words were stringing together. Each page had one to four different typefaces, and at times it was confusing to read, but I trudged on.  Littered throughout the book were photographs, or rather two photographs that were cut up, or magnified, and then repeated.  As I read through the book, I started to think about what we had learned about typeface and the important role it has played in the history of communicating a text. Then it hit me: the typefaces are not random; they are different for a reason. I flung (gently, of course) the pages back and started from the beginning – but this time through, I only read one typeface (the all-caps, san serif, red/green/blue typeface). This is what I read (from here on, anything in [] is a note from me, but anything in () is actually that way in the text. Also, please excuse the spacing – I copied and pasted this from a word document – I tried to change it here but the blog won’t let me):

Every moment of our lives

Has a hole punched in it.

This picture shows one such perforation

Cut through the middle of a clear day’s sleep.

No picture can give us the face of first-persons.

Faces in pictures just say, “unclaimed.”

Signals shoot past a gap in their eyes,

As we go on stirring the cinders.

A surface veracity

Flits along presently,

A tapping

We have only to follow:

“Here we see …”

“These buildings stand …”

We Leave the station.




When we speak into a picture, our words strike the dead and departed.

These words move a pointer over a life, to its stead.

Yet where we speak, whole worlds are deposited,

Accounts kept on a grain of shade.

Each picture tends a portable past,

And a filed of actuality,

Scaled by desire for mastery

And trimmed at the edges:

(In)complete in every detail.

Here is a particularity

Enough to fill a hundred histories.

(We do not know who that man was.)




When we respire on a recorded detail,

We upset the weight of an interval,


Here lying in layer above it

“That was the end of that,” we say

“Then came only this.”


Extended, descended

From that glistening trait,

Some small line of credit

Is looking at us.

Unseen then, uncanny now,

Its promise (of plenty)

Outlives the telling.




Here and there

If we look at a sleeping compartment

And see the turn of a finder’s key,

We overlook the latest graves,

Our sweeping lupe has plotted them:

Coming, coming, gone.

The picture before us

does not foretell us

From it we lift a longing’s invention

on rounds of indeterminacy.


[red small]


We see the skip

Along the tapping strip

that always mourns

its moment holes

And blindly circles

Their transparency

Of a starting place

The disk action

Of the dreamed.

that coiled


which lines

a pictured


The movement

of an origin

Those ledgers of a latency,

the tallies

of expectancy.



I then went back to the beginning and only read the medium-sized black serif un-italic typeface and read this:


Great crowds pass through these quantities, the carriers of an instant.

Now a single phrase, “in such a place

at such a time”

holds them restless to the floor,

prevents their forward motion.


Countless lives have passed this way.

Their places have been taken.

Visitors to the great hall see

every type of home improvement..

Next comes the arc of a household name,

its letters outline and outstanding

on the face of an upright display.

A thoughsand dashes extend its status.

(The sawdust slows our crowding steps.)

Inside the gallery, the traffic has gathered.

This little travelling will not dissolve.

The man in this picture has been saved up

He holds a distance as he walked toward the doors.

The man looked up

Another man enters the fast falling frame

The man who looked up was passing. He is still.

The figure in the foreground is waiting for a ticket to be admitted.

As if mentioned, he turned his head and was taken, grey-clad, to be stored and kept, to be come true.

The white packet on the left is trembling.

Here we see a bit of a person.

I am dead:

in perfect condition.

And we are lost:


Who is dead?

This unfeeling stranger


Now, perhaps, a street runs through him.

All these watchers are deserted

A few people stopped to look.

The noise of street traffic

is stamped on them.

A woman sights a statue

in her quick vicinity.

She is dependent for her position

on the instance of per patenting.

Every casting is the same.

(Release me.)

(Release me.) [backwards]

I would touch you, am worth remembering

Often years pass by before you and I begin to meet.

I suffered, yes, I see that now.

I had lost the grace of uncertainty.

And it is I who must do the work

of producing this instant,

cutting down year to be

always arriving

at the same



“I will


I was,”



to say.

Here, in this view,

the date

is fixed,

and I am left

to run,

to run,

to run,


Shall I


the frame,

so you

can see


What shows will last,

you know.

But such remains

cannot become.

Now you have seen.

“Here is a man elapsed,”

you say.

“If he had been content to stand,

he might have been distilled.”

But you have seen

the soft edge

and the faded generality.

File me under “stricken.”



Next the very small black serif typeface:


As the city grew, lines slowly widened.

Streets assembled along a wire

And turned into the row you see here.

Hyphens of lives projected this district

from parting point to avenue,

casting little shadows.

A magazine vendor lived here.

In large cities, the time of daily

is scored in concrete seconds,

laid out in strips,

and lined with still doorways to pass.

Buildings repeat buildings

to keep their punctual places.

Further on, a window will

leave room to let an instant.

Here we see the schedule of streets

filled with shifts and glass appointments.

Shop windows and shelves perfect a readiness,

standing keen, side by side.

Sometimes the pull of the pavement

and the particles of the hour

will create a shaft or surface tension,

and we may wish to ask the wire:

How long can this corner

afford to keep time?




Then the black italic serif typeface:


The finished product rotates slowly.

It is the last word revolved and reflected.

A long line of short distances,

A thin sheet of novelty

assure its turning constancy.

And still the packages fall from

the stack,

breaking their way through resting eyes

to alight on a moment’s vacancy.

Every article in this room

is labeled with an offer.

Each clerks countenance

meets a lasting standard.

Here we see a clever model

designed to be fulfilled and emptied,

separate in its own clear wrapper,

blind and complete in itself.

These extra attachments

have been places to complete,

pressed together with distinction.

There are many to be delivered


Then the large (it actually varied in size quite a bit, but I made the decision that since it was all the same font and color, that it was one unit) silver typeface:


This is a long, narrow current of air playing on folds in a monument.

Notice the tags exceeding their wares with the first craft of decay.

Labels seal the ruins of the ready.

The passer-by has an untouched history.

Passengers are the fragment’s attendants.

No documents follow in their tracks.


I was incredibly dizzy and felt sick while reading Was Here due to the speed required to flip through the book when reading only one typeface.  Rapidly flipping through 65 pages more than four times was really hard but it was exhilarating.  That moment of discovery was incredible because I had come to it without instruction.  Knowing the history of the role typography has played in book making and Fine Printing enabled me to make this discovery.  Russem quoted architect Charles Eames definition of design as “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.” Had McVarish simply printed her poems on separate pages, I don’t think they would have been as successful.  She utilized typeface and page layout to generate a physical and emotional experience for her reader. McVarish’s choices do accomplish a particular purpose and while her book may also be aesthetically hectic, it is done so with deliberation. By using several fonts, McVarish was able to give the reader two options; to read each typeface separately or to read them all as one.  Each choice would create a different poem, but neither way is ‘wrong’ (I say this because if reading the book in a traditional manner was not what McVarish wanted, then she wouldn’t have printed it in a way that made a reading of that nature possible).  While Was Here was not printed on handmade paper or printed with a letter press, the interactive nature of my reading experience made me appreciate the book more than any of the older texts from book set three.  The Fine Printers had their readers in mind when they chose to use high quality paper and a traditional, legible page layout but Emily McVarish also had her readers in mind when she made the decision to use a complex layout and varying fonts to present her poetry.


Book Sets 2&3: Fine Printing

Fine Printing elevates the book beyond its functional purpose and presents the book as Art. Those in fine printing believed that the book must be made with the highest standards, involving quality, handmade paper, as well as superior binding with fine materials. Similar to the Arts and Crafts Movement, the Fine Press Movement sought to bring aesthetic beauty and visual pleasure to a market of shoddy, mass-produced books.

In Book Set 2 one of the books that really caught my attention was The Wood Beyond the World  by William Morris. It clearly reflects the influence Morris received from 15th century books, utilizing the dark, bold typographical colors of black and red. In accordance with his own standards of what a perfect book should look like, The Wood Beyond the World maintains large outside and foot margins, as well as quality vellum binding. In addition, Morris used a gothic font to print the text but instead of appearing cluttered the font letters had room to breathe and were quite legible. One of the most exquisite features of this book was the woodcut illustrations, the nature motif borders and intricate illustrates were expounded by the excellence of the book itself.

In Book Set 3, Harold McGrath’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a particular hold in my memory because I had never seen a familiar text presented in such a beautiful format. This book follows Morris’s ideals to a T, the pages are clear and easily read, and the type is well designed. Furthermore, McGrath utilized space and whiteness throughout this book, utilizing large and bright pages along with large and comfortable print. Congruently, the illustrations by Smith’s very own, Barry Moser, are bold portraits centered on the white page and given plenty of breathing space. The book is a visual masterpiece.

While I was looking at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I could not help but think of this edition as a perfect embodiment of the issues with Fine Printing. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an American Classic taught in highschools and colleges throughout the nation and is therefore, readily available in the mass-market. Michael Russem would have abounding criticism for this book; he would say that McGrath’s printing of the book is extravagant and counter-intuitive to the functionality of the book. In comparison to mass-produced paperback copies McGrath’s edition is admittedly very large, heavy and pricey. It is certainly not ideal for classroom use nor is it accessible to the broke college student. However, it is crafted with reverence towards the text and the book form itself. It is beautiful as it exists as Art and succeeds and enticing me as the reader to interact with the text.

Book Set No. 2 & 3

The readings from the past few weeks suggest the fine printing is an almost art form where the qualities of the material used have to match the artistic excellence of the type, proportioned margins, as well as deliberate letter and line spacing. Illustrations are also encouraged. William Morris states “the picture-book is not, perhaps, absolutely necessary to man’s life, but it gives us such endless pleasure, and is so intimately connected with the other absolutely necessary art of imaginative literature that it must remain one of the very worthiest things towards the production of which reasonable men should strive,” (The Ideal Book). This quote highlights one of the differences I find most noticeable between fine printing and modern books – the difference between having a connection with the book versus reading it to understand the vision of the writer. Having a pleasurable connection suggests that you are experiencing the book based on your own interpretation rather than just understanding what was intended by the writer.

I chose to look at The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer designed and printed by William Morris (1896) from Book Set 2. This book clearly follows Morris’ ideals for fine printing by having a grand leather cover, gothic lettering, intricate illustrations complete with various borders and proportional margins. The size of the book also echoes the importance of the quote above. This is not a book which can be easily handled, but rather requires one to stretch their arm across the book just to flip the page; this makes the reader experience it in a more complex manner instead of simply passing through the pages. The handmade paper increases this experience by having a crisp sound and texture. This book is a work of art and makes it clear why Morris was against the industrialization of books.

In Book Set 3 I looked at Songs from the Decline of the West which was designed, published and printed by Walter Hamady (1977). This book although created almost a century later was obviously inspired by Morris’ ideals. The paper is handmade which creates a textural experience for the reader, the margins are proportional, and the letter and line spacing is emphasized and consistent. The book differs from Morris’ in its lack of interaction between illustration and text as well as its size. Although, the binding has been carefully crafted, the size of the book allows it to be looked as more casually and requires less interaction with the reader.

These two books although both artistic and of fine printing quality offer two different connections with the reader. The Decline of the West sets up a clear interpretation for the reader and allows us to experience it as the artist had conceptualized it. However, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer allow the reader to delve into an artistic page so carefully designed and oriented with ornate borders, type and detailed illustrations that the reader has to create their own views of the work. Although The Decline of the West is a fine book, I prefer the aesthetic approach seen in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer in part because it is so overwhelming in its beauty that one cannot look at a simpler book and award it with as much artistic value.

20131004_110335[1] The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer20131004_110337[1] 20131004_110433[1] The Decline of the West20131004_110451[1]

Books are works of Art- Book sets 2 & 3

I look at books the same way I watch films. Both mediums have evolved through time and have been shaped by the environment in which they are produced. However, while the change in books and films is perpetual, they should not be compared to the past. In his essay Michael Russem states “…a book is in constant transition as changing technology and methods of production affect the tools we use everyday. Consider the evolution from the stone tablet to the scroll, or the codex to the Kindle. They all have the same basic purpose, but they fulfill that purpose in different ways…” Books are works of art, they serve one purpose, and that is to convey the writer’s ideas to the reader. Now when I say this I don’t mean that I agree with Michael Russem’s opinion that text is the fundamental element of the book, nonetheless I do feel that no matter how the text, illustrations and layout is used, a book is effective if all the elements work together to produce something beautiful. Therefore, for their time, a selection of effective books has been made in the past and continues to be made in the future no matter how transformed they look.


William Morris’s The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is a beautiful spectacle that follows his belief of the “ideal book” perfectly: large sheets of high quality handmade paper, historic yet dark typefaces and ornamentations flood the pages, the margins are thick on the bottom and thin along the sides- Morris was fond of creating visual density. When one turns the pages of the book you can hear the crisp rustle of the pages, the type and woodcut engravings fit together like a puzzle. There is no doubt that it took careful time and effort to produce such a vision. This book makes me believe that handmade books have certain magic to them. But that isn’t to say that commercial, industrially produced books cannot hold a magic of their own. Its simply a different kind of magic.


Was here by Emily McVarish, published in 2001 breaks away from Morris’s traditional layout but has similar characteristics. The text doesn’t follow the grid layout. Photographs are dispersed all over the pages, and some of the text overlays the photographs. Like Morris’s illuminated initial, some of McVarish’s text has larger letters. The book just like The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer is a work of art. From the moment the book is opened, you are introduced to text floating around the page. However the words are stylishly placed in such a way that the eye moves in a diagonal “up to down” direction. The text is a mix of different type, different colors and different sizes however as isolated as they look, they all read as one story and have a certain flow to them. The diagonal “up to down” motion of the eyes works as successfully as reading a book from left to right! This book is of a similar size to the Geoffrey Chaucer, therefore the photographs used in it have a similar effect on the reader as Morris’s woodcuts did in his book.  Just as the pieces of text and wood engravings work together like a puzzle in William Morris’s book, the floating text and dispersed photographs in Emily McVarish’s book do the same.


To conclude, while both The Works of Geofferey Chaucer and Was Here are produced in different time periods, both are strong works of art. Book making is an art form and will continue to evolve but will also continue to use small details used in the past.

photo 2 The Works of Geoffrey Chaucerphoto 1 (1) Was Here

I Don’t Buy Your Books to Read: Fine Printing In Book Sets 2&3

Cheaply bound with pulp paper, or weighty and elaborate? Text and image, or image and text?

In the purest sense, Fine Printing is preserving and celebrating the relationship between Art and the book. William Morris was a catalyst in this quest, and went against the grain of utilitarianism and mechanization in the Western World. His attention to detail and adherence to quality over quantity with new technology was groundbreaking at the end of the 19th century. For Morris, Fine Printing was like a great love story. The typeface and overall aesthetic are liberating. When text meets the page, freedom, morality, and an iconic nature come to life. But, Is it inherently Fine Printing if its copyright by Morris himself? Do all the elements of design, page layout, and meaning add up? And, as Russem discovers, does text matter anyway? Does Fine Printing have anything more than an aesthetic value?

Open to the title page of Kelmscott Press’ edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer from Book Set 2. Its aesthetic stays true to Betty Warde’s glass wine goblet. Burne-Jones, the illustrator wrote, “If we live to finish it, it will be like a pocket cathedral – so full of design and I think Morris the greatest master of ornament in the world.” (Letter to Charles Eliot Norton, 1894). This Chaucer edition was Morris’ culminating work, and a break-through in book design. Morris’ influence of medieval scholarship and revival of the handicraft are evident in its ornate initials and borders. The publication shows a combination of modern printing techniques with a traditionalist influence. The woodcut illustrations were by Edward Burne-Jones, a key figure in the “Pre-Raphaelite” school. The title page spread makes a statement, with its intricate and over the top wood print illustrations and gothic neo-black typeface.

Morris' Chaucer Title Pg

Now, if we think about Michael Russem’s limited edition of a short story, “Sleep,” by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (Book Set 3) with etchings by John Goodman, do we think of it as Fine Printing, too? A different era, a different aesthetic. But the handmade paper, typography, and binding – it has all the elements that make it Morris-esque. It’s just less arts and craftsy. I don’t think being a big, heavy book with ornate details makes it Fine Printing. Rather, it’s the process behind the details.

Russem Sleep Etching
An etching by John Goodman from Russem’s 2004 edition of Sleep.


The video below is a 1940s example of what Morris’ hand press would have looked like. I think it’s an interesting commentary and wonderful to see the process of what Morris constituted as Fine Printing.

Response to Book Sets 2 and 3

The idea of “Fine Printing,” as Morris defines it, is to use books as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Surrounding Morris were mass-produced books made with little care, leading to poor quality books with yellowing pages, type with no visual impact, and lack of proper proportioning, which he believes ultimately leads to a hideous, overly utilitarianist style of printing that undermines creators. Thus, the core principles of the aesthetics in Morris’s ideal book include page margins determined by the golden mean, high-quality and handmade paper, strong black Gothic type, with decorative elements that synthesize with the text. One important tenet that Morris defines is to avoid “beauty for beauty’s sake.”

The best way to demonstrate Morris’s ideals is with the Kelmscott Canterbury Tales, published by Morris himself. From the opening page, with the stark white Gothic letters standing against a dark, richly decorated background and border, it is apparent that the book is exceedingly well made. The ink is rich and the paper fine and handmade, and is still legible and pure to this day, and the binding remains strong. The page margins fit Morris’s ideals, and are filled with decorative engravings. Some of the passages begin with a detailed leading letter, and Morris has a liberal (but probably consistent) use of rubricated initials that stand out on the black-and-white pages. It seems like the only spaces left blank are the spaces between the letters, which allow the text to be distinctive from the illustrations even from far away.

I think it could be argued that the book is pursuing “beauty for the sake of beauty,” but I think Morris would argue that the illustrations and engravings are simply a factor in his aim for a book deserving of glory, triumph, and exaltation. To me, the illustrations, while somewhat excessive, are gorgeous and mind-numbingly well-crafted, with their design blending around the text instead of dominating it. It reminds me of the ornamentation on a cathedral, which, again, some people in some cathedrals would say they are ugly and unnecessary, and others would say they’re gorgeous.

For Book Set 3, the Pennyroyal Press’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn provides an interesting comparison to the Canterbury Tales. They’re both pretty hefty books, and the texts are dark and legible. Huckleberry’s letterpress origins are apparent in the indented text, and it is beautifully bound. However, while Huckleberry’s paper itself is archival, it is also commercial. Its woodcut illustrations are gorgeous, but separate from the text. It’s not the pure example of Fine Press that Morris would have wanted, but it’s still a high quality piece of work.

I guess the biggest folly of the Fine Press movement is that it looped around from Morris’s socialist ideals and became an embodiment of capitalism. My views on this are pretty complicated, probably contradictory, and I’m still figuring them out. First, while Morris’s Canterbury Tales isn’t the small and accessible book that Russem likes, it falls in with Morris’s socialism – it’s beautiful, but it’s also long-lasting and legible; it’s not a book that people will be forced to throw out several years later because of crumbling pages. And every part of its production supported individual workers, not the factory presses, just as Morris wants. It’s certainly a work from the Arts and Crafts movement.

But I think an important thing to note is that the Arts and Crafts/Handicraft movement was pretty quickly co-opted by the upper class – the ones who got rich through factories – especially in the United States. Man, there are more than a few texts where the rich guys talk about how handmade work is objectively better than those that are factory-produced, and proceed to jack up the prices of the handmade works to the point where they’re inaccessible for a lot of people. To varying extents, this attitude bleeds over to some fine printers – they say, “This book will give you a much stronger connection with the author’s work, so we’ll blast the prices up and print a limited number of copies.” (I can’t really blame them, though!) It’s just funny that a book style that has its roots in socialism ends up being ridiculously expensive. On one hand, the books can be seen as artistic; on the other hand, buying them can come across as “Hey, look at how much money I have!”

Like Russem says, if someone buys the Pennyroyal Huckleberry Finn (which goes for a whopping $12,000), it’s not going to be because they want to read it and understand or spread its ideas around. If they wanted that, they could just buy a regular copy for five bucks and enjoy that. Instead, a humongous, rich book like the Pennyroyal edition isn’t going on the coffee table or on the bedside; it’s going on a special place on the shelf.

And that’s perfectly fine, to be honest – it’s nice to have pretty things. Plus, I think I’ve gone on long enough…!

So, considering my associations with the Fine Press movement, Russem’s ideas appeal more to me. He doesn’t condemn paperbacks, and, honestly, I enjoy reading books more than just looking at them, so I like his model of accessibility above all. We definitely don’t have to strip away all beautiful things and decorative elements from books, though. Sometimes, like with French Fries, I think the added aesthetic helps the reader to interpret the books in a new way.

For now, I’m happy with the simple solution to have multiple editions of a book, like a regular DVD versus a Criterion Collection DVD (for example, running onto Amazon and randomly picking The Devil’s Backbone gets us a regular copy for $9.99 and a stylized Criterion copy for $29.95). This way, you satisfy different tastes – there is a visually simple copy that focuses on the text, and if you want to pay more money, you can an ornamental edition that you can show off on your bookshelf.

Morris, Russem, and the Ideal Book

As William Morris tells us the ideal book is “a book not limited by commercial exigencies of price: we can do what we like with it, according to what its nature, as a book, demands of Art.” We are left to conclude that the ideal book then, does not exist. Most especially, as Morris points out, in a capitalist state. The most important aspect of such a claim is the ultimate goal of artistically realizing a book’s intentions. And to some extent we find a similar viewpoint echoed in Michael Russem’s critique of fine printing. Russem tells us: “the most basic function of a book is to convey the coherent and specific ideas of a writer. A book does not need to be handsome, and it does not need to be well-made.” To me, Barry Moser’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from Book Set 3 embodies this crisis between utilitarianism and aesthetic idealism. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is obviously a classical piece of american literature, often studied and widely read. Having mostly experienced it in the form of a mass-market paper back, seeing the Pennyroyal Press edition is at first jarring. You’re instinct is not to interact with the text as much as admire its beauty. You are acutely aware of it’s expense, and aesthetic beauty. Much like Russem’s chair, you are made emotionally aware of the book and taken aback by it. However, I would argue that Moser’s woodcuttings highlight aspects of the text and almost aggrandize its literary value. Would Twain have approved of this edition of his work? There is no way to be absolutely certain. However, the presence of the wood-engravings does draw one to the text which, is inarguably apart of the author’s vision for his work. I would argue that the aesthetic value of the text does not make it entirely inaccessible but, makes it appealing which adds accessibility and rejuvenates a classical work.

Morris’ compromise between his socialist ideals and aesthetic values maintains: “since we shall have to go through a long series of social and political events before we shall be free to choose how we shall live, we should welcome even the feeble protest which is now being made against the vulgarization of all life: first because it is one token amongst others of the sickness of modern civilization; and next, because it may help to keep alive memories of the past which are necessary elements of the life of the future” An idea which drew me to Bruce Rogers’ Song of Roland (1906) from Book Set Two. Song of Roland actively references aesthetic aspects of older books. The illumination, coloring, leading, gold leafing, and composition, all of which position it within the fine print movement, evoke the history of printing and in doing so the history of the book itself.

In both instances I am inclined to side with Morris. While, there is merit to Russem’s argument that texts must be accessible, Morris does not push against this idea. In fact, Morris uses his aesthetic idealism to make books even more accessible and remind us of their inherent value.

bookset2 Song of Rolan (1906) – Bruce Rogers

bookset3 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1985) – Barry Moser

A bit of devil’s advocate (Morris and Book Set 3)

I don’t think I appreciate William Morris as much as people are saying I should.

I mean, his influence is entirely without question — he’s the Osamu Tezuka of the fine book trade. It’s just that instead of Astro Boy and Black Jack, we get curmudgeonly lectures about uneven margin sizes and the unspeakable atrocities of Bodoni. He’s the one who stoked the fires under the dormant artist’s book; he’s the immaculately high standard most contemporary bookmakers still hold themselves to; you can see his neat, high-quality fingerprints peppering nearly every stand-out fine press book of this century. I guess he deserves it, doesn’t he? He was an icon, wasn’t he? Sure, I mutter into my shirtsleeves.

I want to assert: I really enjoy his books. That edition of Chaucer, mm. If that thing were a dinner it’d have rib-eye in it. Honestly, I wouldn’t have any beef with Morris if he were simply a particularly venerable fine-bookmaker from the long line of 20th century fine-bookmakers. But he’s the standard, the rule, and what a stringent rule it is. So stringent that it might be riding up the industry’s behind a bit. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the fine press movement was kicked off by someone else… Someone less ideologically wince-worthy, maybe.

These thoughts occurred to me while I was reading Tom Taylor’s ‘We Can’t Just Stop’ article on bookmaking. I hadn’t read an open declaration and discussion of the fine press industry’s relative obscurity in the overcrowded publishing industry before, so that was fairly enlightening. Why bother creating books using the press, Taylor asks, if the process is expensive, toilsome, and rendered relatively obsolete by a century’s worth of bookmaking technology? His conclusion, interestingly, did not involve any blind reverence of history or self-assured mustache-twirling at the lazy, new-fangled technologies of the gluttonous masses. Taylor understands (with a refreshing amount of both self-reflection and good cheer) that straddling the pompous high-horse of the past does nothing to negate modern bookmaking’s swiftness, proliferation, success, and ease of use. Mass manufacture does not a villain make.

Instead, Taylor returns to his art because of its intimacy, its freedom, its handiwork, its community. Everything that a small-market, high-expertise art form provides. He revels in the creativity bloomed of restriction, because it’s the spirit that counts. And I agree, as an aspiring art major staring down a road of almost certain financial struggle and piddling formal recognition must agree. And here is where Morris most grates on me… His strident promotion of historical techniques over the siren’s call of industry appears to be entirely missing the point — and doing so with an annoying fastidiousness. Alright, so his ideal of the content master craftsman is admirable (if unrealistic). But would he rather a craftsman put great pride and personal character into his or her work — or would he rather them adhere to the strictest of typographical, aesthetic, and material restrictions? I admire his desire for the individual masterpiece, sure. But picking and choosing between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ materials, compositions, or artworks — it seems like its setting immense and arbitrary restrictions on the entire field, and Morris was only just laying down said field’s cornerstone at this point. Experimentation certainly wasn’t on his lengthy and bullet-pointed agenda.

See, just one example and I’ll shut up. Take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the 1985 edition illustrated by Barry Moser. It’s got the golden-mean margins, the roomy, light roman text, the luscious full leather binding, the wood engravings. Morris stuff. But it’s huge. There are people on my dorm floor that are thinner than that damn thing. So, most likely to cut cost, Moser decided to use factory-manufactured paper. High quality, of course — thick and durable — but a book reader can tell at a glance that the book isn’t handmade from spine to fore-edge. An experienced book-maker might even judge it for that. And according to Morris — in so many words — this slip in unspoken book protocol is unacceptable.

It’s a great book. I’m pretty sure no-one’s judging. And I think most of the book-making industry is perfectly willing to ignore and forgive Morris’s eccentricities. But the idea that this craft elitism still lurks over the field like a bad smell makes me want to kick cats.


Book Sets 2 & 3: William Morris’ Ideals & Influence



Please use the following questions as a starting point in developing your response to Book Sets 2 & 3.  How would you articulate the ideals at the heart of “Fine Printing”?  Please choose a book from each book set to consider in depth.  In what ways do your chosen books embody William Morris’ ideals and reflect his aesthetic influence?  In what ways do they diverge from Morris’ work?  Which aesthetic approach do you prefer, and why?   You may wish to incorporate your response to Michael Russem’s critique of Fine Printing.