The Reality of Letterpress in Publishing

               The letterpress is a process that has grown outdated in comparison to the fast-paced book production that can be done using a copier and an engineered factory. The ebook threatens the printed codex putting the letterpress in even farther distance as far as mass production is concerned. There is, however, a certain aesthetic quality about the letterpress. Many people agree that there is something about having that physical copy of the book that overshadows the ebook. I personally read print book more readily than any attempt to read over electronics. A letterpress adds more to this materiality that gives a book body and beauty if used in a particular manner. However, the question remains as to if the letterpress will stage a place in publishing in the near future.

               I should note first that when I think of letterpress, I have in mind the indention on the page along with the application of ink. However, Adina Segal quotes Eric Gill: “A print is properly a dent made by pressing; the history of letterpress printing has been the history of the abolition of that dent.” Segal further explains that the contemporary movement has a divide in which some pressers argue that the “kiss” is proper, and others argue that the impression is what makes letterpress distinguishable from litho printing. Further, Sara McNally reports that deep impression potentially damages typeset and machinery. While impressions add to the materiality of book and art, there is reason to use it sparingly, and the question indeed arises for the consumer when using a kiss technique, “What is the aesthetic value?”

Pride and Prejudice
Cover Page of Thorwillow Press editon of Pride and Prejudice. Can you really tell that this is letterpress?

               I think the most attraction to the letterpress for artists and publishers is the activity. There is joy in involving body into the process of creation. There simply isn’t as much satisfaction in digitally printing a work or much less electronically publishing your book. Furthermore, the current market of books shows the disconnection between full length letterpress book producers and consumers shows that letterpress will remain a small niche in book publishing. Consider, a letterpress edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost from The Arion Press. It is sold for a whopping $1,200. A more practical example doesn’t support letterpressing to become more mainstream either. Thornwillow Press sells Pride and Prejudice for $125. Remembering that a “kiss” is indistinguishable from litho printing, letterpress will remain a sparingly used technique, and only those who can enjoy the fine details of letterpress will consume it.

Works Cited

Segal, Adina. “Kiss vs thump.” lettica, Sept. 30, 2016. https://www.lettica.co.uk/blog/kiss-thump-letterpress-debate.html. Accessed Oct. 7, 2021

McNally, Sara. “What’s the deal with impression?” Constellation & Co. Jul. 16, 2013. https://www.constellationco.com/blog/blog/2013/07/whats-the-deal-with-impression. Accessed Oct. 7, 2021.

Experiencing Unspoken

One of the covers of my book, Unspoken. Unspoken only has front covers. It can be read from either cover as a starting point.

            “What is a book? A book is an experience. . . . A book starts with an idea. And ends with a reader” (Chen and Meador).

            With so many variations of what we call “book,” it would be next to impossible to argue what a book is. However, Chen and Meador’s conception of book might be a starting point.

            As I set out to accomplish my assignment, the first question I had to answer is “What goes on the pages?” This is the beginning of the experience. As the bookmaker/co-writer/pseudo-publisher, the various elements that I needed to account were both shaped by my ideas and shaped my ideas. One element was settled for me: the book would be in the style of accordion folds. With that settled, I began to contemplate what the accordion could provide in terms of presenting content. Of all the ideas I considered, I found that the accordion folds could communicate something about the way we as people interact with each other. We often keep ourselves closed off, specifically that inner self, but there are opportunities to open our inner most selves. This is the experience I wanted to communicate.

            The next task was to decide on the content. Given the intimacy of revealing the inner self, I wanted the content to invoke emotional responses in the reader. Poetry seems to capture subjective thought and emotion in a way that no other content can. What’s more, I had decided to voice that which goes unsaid. Ulises Carrión reflects on the connection between poetry and print:

            “Poems are songs, the poets repeat. But they don’t sing them. They write them. Poetry is to be said aloud, they repeat. But they don’t say it aloud. They publish it. The fact is, that poetry, as it occurs normally, is written and printed, not sung and spoken, poetry. And with this, poetry has lost nothing. On the contrary, poetry has gained something: a spatial reality that the so loudly lamented sung and spoken poetries lacked” (2-3).

            What other form of communication could so very well capture the intimate and suffering inner self? The decision of content is just as much an experience as that which I want readers to undergo. The small idea I had, that I wanted to communicate the closed off inner self open up, was now being modified by the content I had decided to use. My book, Unspoken, would attempt to communicate the suffering of the victims of suicide. We are always surprised to hear of someone attempting or committing such a tragedy. “They seemed so happy. I never thought i’d be them,” we say. Mellisa Paiz opens her poem reflecting how true this experience is from the other person: “Look into my eyes and tell me what you see, / in front of you, in front of the world, and wherever I go, / I’ll plaster a smile on my face so no one will know.”

A portion of Unspoken. Pictured is an edited copy of “Honestly, I Hate My Life” by Melissa Paiz.

            Turning my attention to the materiality of the book, I needed to reflect these experiences to my audience. To reflect the deception of the outer self, I chose a floral pattern paper for the covers. Flowers also have a communicate aspects of death, but anyone sees Unspoken lying around would likely not expect the subject of the book to reflect on suicide. For the pages, I chose to use black paper for its somber tone. Here is where materiality affected my book in a manner less out of my control. The paper available to me was dimensionally 12” x 15”. To get the most out of the material without too much waste, I used 4”x4” squares as my page dimensions. This affected the font size of my book as well. I didn’t want the book to have a large depth so I chose to limit the pages. I used a yellow background to print my text. The choice of yellow was aesthetic as it matched some of the tones in the floral covering. The material of the book was affected by my idea, but what was available also affected what I chose.

            Creating Unspoken has indeed been an experience. However, the process is incomplete. Until people read Unspoken, the book is incomplete. It is only when other people experience my production it may be called “book.”

The other side of Unspoken features most of “The Moring After I Killed Myself” by Meggie Royer.

Works Cited

Carrión, Ulises. “The New Art of Making Books.” Kontexts, no. 6-7, Center for Book Arts, 1975.

Chen, Julie and Meador Clifton. How Books Work. Flying Fish Press, 2011.

Breaking the Script: Dress Code Strictly Enforced

The prisoner wearing a green uniform on the right and accompanying phrases on the left.

               Tona Wilson takes advantage of the codex with spiral binding for her book, Dress Code Strictly Enforced. The purpose of the book is to spread awareness of the biases, negative effects, and injustices of the American culture and dress, particularly in the court. Most of the pages consist of monologues on the left side of the page and a character on the right. However, these pages are split horizontally in two places across. Each “page” is actually three pages that can be viewed simultaneously. By using the spiral binding, a reader can flip through the different pages mixing the monologues and sections of characters. When flipping through the pages in the manner that we would normally, the characters we perceive do not strike us unusual. For instance, the image of a man wearing a prison uniform is one such character. The monologue on the right says, “The sentences are to / run consecutively, / so you will run the sentence after your original sentence of 35 years to life.” The monologue directed at the prisoner is also nothing striking. However, by flipping through the pages in the middle and bottom, we can create an unusual character: the head of our original prisoner, a torso with a shirt that reads, “I’m a party waiting to happen!” with the hands bound by zip ties in the front, and legs dressed in a knee length skirt and heels. The monologue now reads, “The sentences are to / be represented by counsel (and by that I mean an attorney) if that’s possible, Your Honor.” The image now presented is a bit non-sensical, but it serves a purpose in that it reminds us of the biases we hold perceiving people as stereotypes. Additionally, the script we adhere to in our discourse is ruptured reminding us to review how we speak and also of our programmed phrases.

A rearrangement of different pages forming a nonsensical monologue and an unusual character.

Content, Form, and a Streetcar

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               When considering a book, there are two features that likely come to mind. The first that we might think of while I am communicating this over the internet is the content of the book. The second feature that you might notice before hand is the material structures and formatting of the book.

               When I first grabbed Poems to Read on a Streetcar, I noticed its simplicity in material. The pages are made from some form of print paper, and the cover from cardstock. The entire book is bound by two staples. The color used on the cover is an off-white rather than attempting to catch a would-be-reader by using a colorful background to have it stound out from other books.

               The choices in material construction appear to reflect the content of the chapbook. When I had first opened the book in no particular place, I came across the poem “Verona.” True to its title, the content is written as if Girondo had been writing this poem while riding the streetcar: “A powdery rain makes the Plazza delle Erbe shine; it draws itself up into tiny speres that sail across the pavement and suddenly burst, for no reason” (13). While the extraction of meaning and beauty might be anything but simple, the phenomenological view from which observations are made is what is so simple.

               The format of Girondo’s chapbook mostly follows the theme of simplicity. Titles are given at the top, and verse appear in standard font. Where I presume Girondo wrote his poetry in English, the poems are printed side-by-side on different pages. However, there are some poems that I assume were originally written in Spanish. In such cases, the original Spanish appears on the left page, and Cleary’s English translation displays on the right page. While most of the formatting is simple, anyone flipping through the chapbook will be drawn to “Cantar de las ranas” or “Frog song” on pages 20 and 21 respectively.

Works Cited

Girondo, Oliverio. Poems to Read on a Streetcar. Translated by Heather Cleary. New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2014.

The Bamboo Scroll

Of all the variations that the book took in form over history, none may be less influential to how we know books today than the Chinese bamboo scrolls. Like all forms of book, the bamboo scroll was a product of the resources available and the primary book form the 17th century BC to 4th century AD (Stromer). The choice to use bamboo is intuitive in that it is widely available in China. Because bamboo is thin, they were cut into strips and sewn together with hemp, silk, or leather. Writing required a fine point marker, either in the form of a brush or a carving tool, rather than a broad instrument. This contributed to the complex characters of the Chinese writing system. Amaranth Borsuk reports, “The tradition Chinese style of writing from top to bottom arises directly from the book’s materiality—a bamboo slip was too thin to permit more than one character per line” (26). Additionally, Borsuk explains that Chinese writing also reads from right to left because Chinese writers found it faster to add blank slips with their left hands. I find this not to be a satisfying explanation, however. For one, this doesn’t explain why the slips were used vertically. I can imagine using them horizontally just as well. This would allow for both a left-to-right writing and reading system as well as a more simplified form of writing since more than one character could be placed on the same line. Secondly, I see no reason why we could not create a writing system that forms words vertically rather than horizontally. Thirdly, a look at some bamboo scrolls show that it was common to add complex sketches that expanded onto many slips. Perhaps a better explanation as to the use of complex characters is that the scrolls would be cumbersome so it would be more economical to fit more communication into smaller spaces. Perhaps attempting to refer to book materials for explaining all the choices in the development of the book and writing is erroneous.

The bamboo scroll is extremely impractical for most books in English. However, the artist who wishes to display some shorter poems or very short prose could modify the scroll by writing on the scrolls horizontally rather than vertically. I came across some pictures of popsicle sticks sewn together in a similar fashion to the bamboo scrolls. Those interested in arts and crafts can make a quick afternoon project out of it.

From “Virtual cleaning and unwrapping of non-invasively digitized soiled bamboo scrolls.” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-39447-0/figures/6, accessed 10 Sep. 2021.

Works Cited

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2018.

Stromer, Daniel et al. “Virtual cleaning and unwrapping of non-invasively digitized soiled bamboo scrolls.” Scientific Reports. 2019, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-39447-0, accessed 10 Sep. 2021.

Our Muse, the Book

In his essay “On the Cult of Books,” Jorge Borges points us to Plato for one conception of the book. Specifically, Borges writes, “[Plato] said that books are like the painted figures ‘that seem to be alive, but do not answer a word to the questions they are asked’” (359).

Maybe Plato is correct here, but does this diminish the value of the book? Not in the manner that Borges presents the quote at the very least. Borges ties this conception of books to the moral position of antiquity that the oral word is superior to the written. It is well known that Socrates himself never wrote any treatises, and it was common for orators in the past to memorize myths as a means of entertainment and moral teaching. The quote above seems to support the orator over the scribe, but the sentence that Plato follows with the quotation we are examining undermines this position: “And the same may be said of speeches” (1135) Plato was not a critic of books and a supporter of the oral tradition. The context of the dialogue is concerned about getting to truth. A memorized speech is no more equipped to answer questions posed to it than a book.

Meynier, Charles. Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry. 1798. Cleveland Museum of Art.

There is value, however, in both the written word and the speech. The book is given value in that we can interact with the content. The book acts as inspiration for questions even if it cannot answer them like a person with which we are in discussion. The book brings us wonder. It gives us ideals with which to strive and vices to avoid. Books are themselves dialogues between other books in that they challenge one another on truth, beauty, morality, and more. It is not just the explicit content that matters either. The numerous implicit messages in books serve as inspiration for us to question our perceived realities. The book acts as our ancient Muse.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions. Translated by Eliot Weinberger, Penguin, 2000, 358-363.

Plato. “Phaedrus.” The Dialogues of Plato. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, Random House, 1937, 1078-1138.