Using and Preserving

Many of the printers interviewed in Pressing On argued that presses are best preserved if they are used rather than stored or displayed in museums. I think this philosophy might be applied to most heritage items, with the caveat that antiques in use will hardly, if ever, remain in mint condition.

A short video on using a 1930 Golding press. Never having heard of letterpress before, I found this video helped me understand a little bit of how the machinery worked (“How to: Use a Vintage Letterpress”).

              Heritage items preserved by consistent use will evolve through wear and tear. I used to work at JoAnn Fabrics, and I remember one lady who bought faux fur to repair a teddy bear from the 19th century; that bear is no longer the exact same bear as it was in the 1800s. It has been preserved, but not in its original condition. I find this impermanence a little disconcerting; the thought that sentimental things like toys, special blankets, or my favourite pair of socks might one day wear out and need repairs that could significantly alter their identities is a little scary. I imagine that on something more utilitarian, like a printing press, the replacements and repairs necessitated by frequent use are probably less noticeable. Though, perhaps if one were to sentimentalize a press in the same way as a teddy bear, one might be more aware of its identity changes.

              So items in use will never be preserved exactly as they were when they were manufactured. Bits and pieces wear out over time and need replacing; these broken bits will usually have to be replaced with modern bits. I have a Singer New Home sewing machine from the 1940s; needles aren’t made for it anymore, so, when I inevitably break the needle I’ve got, I’ll have to modify a modern needle to replace it. But I think the mish-mash of old and new parts speaks to the time a thing has been through, its reliability, and the people who have owned and used it before. I think of that senior teddy bear and the hands it’s passed through; how cool it would be to gift it to a little boy or girl and say, “This used to be mine, and before that, it was your grandmother’s,” and so on. The process of use, wear, and repair gives an item a story, personalizes it, and connects its user with his ancestors.

               I think when deciding whether to preserve something by using it or storing it, there are two warring sentimentalities. On the one hand, a sort of conservatism wants to keep something as it is forever; one thinks, ‘there’s something special about the way it is now and I don’t want to ever forget it or lose it.’ On the other hand, the process of using, wearing, and renovating marks an item with its history, tying its current user to the users before. I think for most things, a medium can be reached: use the things you want to preserve, but use them carefully. Some of the printers in Pressing On mentioned how important regular cleaning and maintenance of a letterpress is to its performance. They use their presses, but they are careful to keep them in good condition. If the same care is applied to any antique, I think most can be useful, and some even preserved better for being used.

Works Cited

“After Printing: The Crucial Step Between Stopping the Press and Tea and Buns.” British Letterpress, 2021, britishletterpress.co.uk/letterpress-guides/after-printing/. Accessed 12 Oct. 2021.

“How to: Use a Vintage Letterpress.” YouTube, uploaded by atplay, 19 Aug. 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JJa5anhdmYs.

Pressing On. Directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, Bayonet Media, 2017.

A Little Book of Denial

A Little Book of Denial is quite literally a little book, and its tiny size is perhaps the most telling quality on its meaning. Small as it is, it requires a little more attention—to find, to handle, to inspect—and this extra devotion makes the book feel more intimate. This sort of private character fits with the current, Western expectation of the book as an intimate space, a little world set apart from reality (Borsuk 84). A Little Book of Denial is, essentially, a private world full of “no.” Like a guilty indulgence, this little book hides its negatives in its smallness.

My accordion book, A Little Book of Denial, made of charcoal paper, cardstock, and negation. (Photos by Oli Grogan).

Funnily enough, much of the motivation for the size of A Little Book of Denial came from my hesitation to retrieve materials. There was a large roll of paper available, from which I might have procured a sizable strip of paper, but I did not want to weave my way through the classroom and stand aimlessly about waiting for the optimal moment to hastily—and no doubt clumsily—cut myself a sheet. Instead, I opted to stay at my place and tear a strip of charcoal paper from my stab-binding template (prior to that, I had been experimenting with strips of paper I tore from a notebook). I had initially had some desire to play with creating a small book, but my hesitation to intrude ultimately necessitated the tiny scale. The littleness of A Little Book of Denial is, therefore, a direct result and an explicit expression of my tendency to avoid attention—it is a sort of self-portrait.

A Little Book of Denial does not depart radically from the familiar codex form of book, but the structure does contribute to the book’s meaning. Much like a codex, the covers and the painted back of the accordion seem to contain the text in a little, private box, lending A Little Book of Denial an introversion cohesive with my self-portrait idea. However, as an accordion book, the text could be read in different ways. The “no”s could be displayed all at once, like a chorus, or perhaps a rapid repetition, or else they could be flipped through as if searching for the proper “no” for a delicate situation. It is a “sequence of spaces,” as Ulises Carrión defines a book—spaces containing the “No” we can’t always express, or the “no” we wish we could hear (Borsuk 143).

Work Cited

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. MIT Press, 2018.

Nostalgia in When You Hear This Sound

When You Hear This Sound is a book-and-record set by Australian artist Keg de Souza. It contains a collection of “quirky observations” about the artist’s neighbourhood Redfern and a 7” vinyl record of songs created from the book’s text. The hand-drawn and silk-screened illustrations, the loose, playful composition of the pages, and the unique format as a book-and-record set all drew me to this book with feelings of nostalgia and affection for de Souza’s neighbourhood (“When You Hear This Sound”) (“Keg de Souza”).

The illustrated book-and-record format, by recalling the similar books the artist and I had as kids, fits and creates the nostalgic feel of When You Hear This Sound (“When You Hear This Sound”). Like the book-and-CD sets I had as a kid, the introductory pages contain an illustration of two kids reading the book in front of a record player, the syntax is simplistic, and the typesetting is scattered and playful. The subject matter on the other hand, which includes crime, poverty, and some unpleasant neighbours, is entirely opposite to (at least my) expectations of a children’s book (De Souza). Yet these more serious, difficult topics are surrounded by a sort of affection conveyed by the book’s form.

The simple, loose aesthetic of the book’s content, too, conveys the same sort of nostalgic affection. The illustrations are all hand-drawn and the text stamped onto the page, giving the book an organic look, which speaks to the individuality of artist de Souza and the personal, manual attention given to the book’s creation. The style of illustration has that same imprecision—the lines are a little shaky, and straight edges are not perfectly straight. These imperfections, while evoking the nostalgia of a children’s book, also convey some of the broken, ugly imperfections of de Souza’s neighbourhood.

A spread from Souza’s When You Hear This Sound. The text is loose and wraps organically around the illustrations, which share a similar imprecision. A PDF of the book is available here. (Photo source: “When You Hear This Sound”)

De Souza uses the form and content of When You Hear This Sound to convey her sentimentality for Redfern. The unruled text and inexact illustrations, the inclusion of a sing-a-long record, and the gentle irony in de Souza’s anecdotes create an affectionate blanket in which her neighbourhood—with its rotting vegetables, drug users, and reckless trolley man—lies. Personal, comical, and honest, When You Hear This Sound exhibits a love of the mundane (and sometimes less-than-beautiful) things that define home.

Works Cited

De Souza, Keg. When You Hear This Sound. Women’s Studio Workshop, 2012, wsworkshop.org/wp-content/uploads/collection-item/when-you-hear-this-sound/pdf/when-you-hear-reduced.pdf. Accessed 29 Sep. 2021.

“Keg de Souza.” Women’s Studio Workshop, 2021, wsworkshop.org/collection/when-you-hear-this-sound/. Accessed 28 Sep. 2021.

“When You Hear This Sound.Women’s Studio Workshop, 2021, wsworkshop.org/collection/when-you-hear-this-sound/. Accessed 28 Sep. 2021.

A Personal Chapbook

(GIGNO)SKEIN, being a hand-bound chapbook, hardly concerns itself with aesthetics. The cover is plain cardstock—a nice blue-grey flecked with gold, but plain nonetheless—and the binding is a piece of string sewn through three holes in the spine—strikingly simple compared to, for example, the potentially elaborate stab-binding projects we did in class. This unassuming design seems utilitarian, reflecting the philosophy that the book form ought to convey the text, the content of the book, as transparently as possible (Borsuk 106). At first glance, one hardly notices the book’s qualities as an object; attention is instead focused on the poetry it contains.

There are, however, a few traits that stick out precisely because of the book’s minimalistic design—it seems to follow a “less is more” philosophy.

The first of these properties is the title, and the way in which it’s presented. Visible through a window in the cover, the title of this chapbook reads SKEIN, meaning a loose coil, perhaps a tangle, usually of something like yarn (Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary) (American Heritage Dictionary). But when you open the cover to reveal the dummy title page, the title reads GIGNOSKEIN, a Greek verb meaning “to know” (also “to understand,” “to perceive,” “to learn,” etc.) (“What is Gnosticism?”). When the cover is opened, the transformation of “skein” to “gignoskein” seems to imply a relationship between loose or tangled ideas and understanding, perhaps suggesting that this collection of poems should be approached as an amalgamation of images, sounds, space, and in some cases punctuation, which contain knowledge.

The title of (GIGNO)SKEIN seen from the cover and the dummy title page. Photos by me.

A page from (GIGNO)SKEIN. “A ‘Beautiful In-Law’ for Brenda.” Photo by me.

              The poetry in (GIGNO)SKEIN is experimental and abstract, making little to no literal sense. One of these poems, “A ‘Beautiful In-Law’ for Brenda,” seems to abandon the meaning of words so entirely that they conjure up no familiar images (at least for me). “Dare an end lead/Dream an ear bird,” for example, refers to nothing recognizable but rather plays with rhyme and assonance (Hartmann). This is the bare minimum of poetry—the manipulation of sound—much like the chapbook is the minimum of the codex—several folios stacked together to form a book (Borsuk 43). This abstract use of language is representative of many of the poems in this book, and because of these avant-garde qualities, these poems seem to fit the bill as tangled, not-immediately-comprehensible “skeins.” But what of the other title? Where do we find the understanding and insight implied by “gignoskein?”

              Many of the poems in (GIGNO)SKEIN refer to the poet Brenda Hillman to whom the book is dedicated. “Small Edits on a Poem Itself,” for example, is an erasure poem from comments Hillman made on the poet’s work (Adam), and another is titled “From Brenda” (Friedman). It is in these homages that we find the revelation the title implies. One of the connotations of “gignoskein” is “to get to know a person,” or “to be acquainted with someone” (“What is Gnosticism?”). Perhaps this amalgamation of poems serves as a sort of portrait of Hillman. As a preamble to the poem “Marked Exhalation”, she is quoted as saying “Words aren’t clear; they’re marks on the page—” an attitude reflected in the abstract and sometimes absurd use of words in this collection of poems (Oshiro). The “skein” of poetry helps us “gignoskein” Hillman and her influence on these poets.

              Confluent with this interpretation of the book as an homage to Hillman are the evidences of manual construction. The sewn binding, the knot where the string ends were tied off, and the marks of a craft knife around the window in the cover—made noticeable by the minimalistic design—all contribute to a sense of intimacy. It feels almost as if this book was intended as a personal gift to Hillman.

Hand-made features of (GIGNO)SKEIN. From left to right: the three-hole sewn binding, the knot where the ends of the binding thread are tied off, and the little crosses at the corners of the window cut in the cover. Photos by me.

Works Cited

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. The MIT Press, 2018, pp. 43-45.

“Brenda Hillman.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/brenda-hillman. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.

Fell, Adam. “Small Edits on a Poem Itself.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.

Friedman, Olivia. “From Brenda.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.

Hartmann, Meg. “A ‘Beautiful In-Law’ for Brenda.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.

Oshiro, Janine H. “Marked Exhalation.” (GIGNO)SKEIN. Iowa Writer’s Workshop, 2006.

“Skein.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/skein. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.

“Skein.” American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/skein. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.

“What is Gnosticism?” Haverford College, http://ww3.haverford.edu/religion/courses/222a/First%20Class%20Gnost.htm. Accessed 21 Sep. 2021.

Some Unique Properties of the Jiance

The jiance, developed in seventh century China, is a clear example of the influence of the form of a book on its content.These early books were made from strips of bamboo which, once filled with text, were tied together to form a mat which could be rolled up for storage and portability (Borsuk 25). These strips were too narrow to fit more than one character horizontally, so they were written from top to bottom (26). Ideographic characters also took on a vertical orientation, with, for example, animals depicted on their hindlegs (27). The narrow ‘page’ space influenced not only the characters but the style of writing, which was necessarily laconic (Wu). Concise diction and the direction of writing and reading were direct results of the jiance’s construction.

As an artist, I also found the form of the jiance intriguing because of the unique possibilities it holds for illustration. The side-by-side arrangement of the strips and the page-like boundaries between them might be treated as a multi-page sketchbook spread—where the facing recto and verso pages are treated as a continuous surface—or exploited to create a polyptych work of multiple related images. The restricted space of each strip also presents a field for experimentation: an artist could draw vertical subjects or draw in miniature, s/he could work up a narrow strip of a subject, cropping the rest from the frame made by the strip, or play with distortion to fit entire subjects on a single ‘page.’

A triptych painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. The strips of a jiance might be illustrated in a similar fashion, with each strip treated as its own panel.
A miniature painting by artist Karen Libecap. An incredibly detailed illustration can be produced in a small space (the painting above is 1.25 inches square), comparable to that available on the narrow strips of the jiance. These early Chinese books might make an interesting substrate for a collection of miniature art.

In addition to the restricted space, the jiance is also unique in its audibility. An often-overlooked property of books—a property which might be easily manipulated in the jiance—is the sound they make. When you turn the page of a typical book, it scrapes against its neighbours, you hear your finger slide against it, sometimes it buckles or crackles, and we don’t usually notice these noises or consider them as purposeful contributions to the experience of a book. I imagine the traditional jiance, being made from bamboo slats, would rattle as it was unrolled, but an artist might experiment with different materials to produce different sounds. What about using metal or glass to mimic wind-chimes? Or maybe a variety of materials in one book?

The sound of the book and its capacity for illustration are aspects an artist might experiment with using not only the jiance, but any form of book. I think these are two areas (there are probably more) of which contemporary books are not usually conscious; how the sound of a book might add to its content, or in what ways the form of a book can be used to create illustrations are questions not usually asked of the common book. I don’t mean to say that every book ought to be illustrated, or noisome, but there is an opportunity open to play with those facets if they might contribute to the book as an artwork.

Works Cited

Borsuk, Amaranth. The Book. The MIT Press, 2018, pp. 25-28.

Gallen-Kallela, Akseli. Aino Myth. 1891. Tampereen Taidemuseo, Tampere. Wikimedia Commons, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gallen_Kallela_The_Aino_Triptych.jpg. Accessed Sep 2021.

Libecap, Karen. Elk. N.d. Karen Libecap, karenlibecap.com/animals/. Accessed Sep 2021.

Wu, K. T. “The Chinese Book: Its Evolution and Development,” T’ien Hsia Monthly, vol. 3, no. 1, 1936, pp. 25-33, http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/tien-hsia.php?searchterm=020_chinese_book.inc&issue=020.

Some Thoughts on the Practices of Reading Aloud and Silently

Silent reading must have seemed a strange practice when it first appeared. In a time when the written word was simply a substitute for the spoken (Borges 358), the art of reading silently, comprehending the meaning of written symbols without pronouncing their corresponding sounds, must have seemed as strange to the ancients as hearing a song in one’s head by scrutinizing the grooves on a vinyl record would seem to us today. 

After reading a portion of Borges’ essay “On the Cult of Books” out loud and rereading it silently, I noticed I found it harder to comprehend the passage when I read it out loud. It felt as if in translating the written words into sounds my mind bypassed the assignment of definitions, images, and meanings. Whether this is a result of a simple lack of practice or a common neuromechanical pathway, I don’t know, but when I read something aloud, I often have to return and read it silently to grasp the content.

For me, reading silently enables the imagination in a way that the spoken word does not. Perhaps quietude fosters that deep, almost dissociative headspace where creative, nonlinear thought thrives, and this kind of thinking is where I find the meaning behind the words I read—not just definitions and connotations, but emotions, themes, and philosophies.

Perhaps that enhanced comprehension I notice in my silent reading flows from the “intent concentration” St. Ambrose exhibited when reading to himself. St. Augustine theorized that St. Ambrose read silently to “protect himself” from the questions of interested hearers, perhaps so that he might get through more books (Borges 359). In silence, reading takes on a sort of glorious selfishness; the reader is free to take in the words alone, comprehend them alone, and contemplate them alone, without the obligation to explain the content to anyone but oneself. Silent reading omits the responsibility of the teacher in preference of the patient thought, the gradual accumulation of understanding of the student.

So far, I’ve written about silent reading mostly from a personal perspective. For an examination of the broader social implications of silent reading in Western culture, I’ve included a link to the article “History of Reading: The Beginning of Silent Reading Changed Westerners’ Interior Life” (/https://qz.com/quartzy/1118580/the-beginning-of-silent-reading-was-also-the-beginning-of-an-interior-life/), which makes some interesting points about the relationship between the rise of silent reading and individualism.

In thinking of when books ought to be read aloud, I was reminded of a time I spent with a group of missionaries who were fascinated with the oral tradition of the Bible. Because many parts of the Bible were intended to be read aloud to groups of people, they organized small groups to read it out loud that they might experience, say, Paul’s letters, in a context truer to their original publication. Many reported that vocal rendition of the Bible was, in some undefinable way, a deeper one than that of reading to oneself. I suppose this applies to other sacred texts, too.

Poetry, too, because of its relationship with sound, can take on a new dimension when read aloud. Sometimes I find a certain word or line that feels good on my tongue. Saying it aloud feels as if it gives me a little bit of ownership of the words and, perhaps more importantly, the emotions and images behind them. In the case of poetry, then, too, reading aloud can broaden the experience.

I prefer to read silently almost always. But sometimes I find a line, a word, or thought that strikes a chord somewhere, and I can make it sound a little louder and a little clearer by repeating it out loud. Exactly which writings those are, those that seem to insist on being spoken, probably vary from person to person, from time to time, but because of this personal nature, I suppose any book is a good candidate for being read aloud.

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On the Cult of Books.” Selected Non-Fictions, translated by Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger, Penguin Group, 1999, pp 358-362.

Ha, Thu-Huong. “The Beginning of Silent Reading Changed Westerners’ Interior Life.” Quartz, 2017, qz.com/quartzy/1118580/the-beginning-of-silent-reading-was-also-the-beginning-of-an-interior-life/. Accessed 6 Sep. 2021.