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Safe from the Grubby Masses

I recently finished an excellent book by Megan L. Benton called "Beauty and the Book: fine editions and cultural distinction in America" (Yale University Press, 2000). That must sound deadly dull to most people, but I found it terrifically interesting. It is a study of the making, marketing, and collecting of hand-crafted books in the early 20th century.

The Industrial Revolution, with its dramatic advances in manufacturing efficiency, made books quite easy to produce. Suddenly the country was awash in the printed word. There was a significant backlash in many literary circles. It was feared that worthwhile books would be drowned among the cheap editions of frivolous and sensational works aimed at a mass market. Quite simply, there were too many books being published.

Craftsman printers like John Nash, Edwin and Robert Grabhorn, William Kittredge, Frederic Warde, and others set out to revive truly fine printing and typography as a means of preserving "serious" books. They took great pains selecting typefaces, binding styles, and materials. Several of them used handmade paper. The text was usually an acknowledged classic, and often a highly regarded artist would be commissioned to illustrate it. Most of the books produced in this way were necessarily "limited editions" by the nature of the materials used and the way they were made. These books were essentially shrines to the texts they contained, as well as vehicles for the artisan printers to display their craft. Many remain strikingly beautiful objects of art and typography, and are prized by collectors.

Something I found very interesting in "Beauty and the Book" was the conflicted elitism of those who set out to produce these fine books. After all, you have to be something of an elitist to believe, as the makers of fine editions did, that the "masses" will not of their own accord preserve worthy books by supporting them in the marketplace. On the whole, printers of fine editions deplored commercialism and tried to occupy a higher plain. (It was ironic that for awhile this "anti-commercial" quality was one of their greatest selling points!) The paradox that ultimately overwhelmed most printers and publishers of fine editions was this: They had to engage in enough commerce so that they could maintain their crusade against commercialism.

The same conflicted elitism can be seen in the plight of today's independent booksellers as they continue to be squeezed by the national chains. Independents truly believe that the superstores only carry the bestsellers, that a handful of corporate book buyers control what gets published, that nobody who works at a chain knows anything about books, and that the general public is not smart enough to see that unless they support independent bookstores it will be the ruin of "serious" books. We are all welcome to our opinions, of course. But unlike the fine printers of the early 20th century, today's independent booksellers do not recognize their own elitism and would deny it if confronted. After all, they're probably really doing it "for the children."

The other very interesting idea explored in "Beauty and the Book" is the importance of a book's form. Fine printers elevated form to a level that in some cases overpowered the text. But to what degree is the meaning of a text affected by the medium in which it is conveyed? This is particularly relevant with so many people proclaiming (once again) that printed books are nearly dead, soon to give way to electronic texts. But do you come away with the same interpretations of Shakespeare, Austen, or Emerson regardless of whether the text enters your brain via a cheap paperback reprint, a finely printed volume, or electronic blips on your laptop? Probably not. In fact, taking it a step further, your impressions and interpretations of an author's words are also colored by the environment in which you read them. The experience of reading "Walden" on a crowded subway is not the same as reading it in the woods beside a sun-dappled stream.

Because of the importance of the medium and what it contributes to the message, I don't think we'll see the end of printed books within a time span that matters to any of us. That is, of course, assuming that the "masses" don't ruin everything.

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