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Dear Reader

Ink-Stained, But Not Wretched

Fine Books and Collections editor Ann J. Loftin
Editor Ann J. Loftin

This month I badgered our Book Arts columnist, Richard Goodman, into writing about Barbarian, a fine press outside of Vancouver, B.C. (Not that he wasn’t willing, but getting books through Canadian customs can be a headache.) I wanted Richard to write about this press because one of the two founders, Crispin Elsted, had been so kind to me at the CODEX festival last February. My near-perfect ignorance of the fine press world merely persuaded Crispin that I needed some educating, and so he took me under his wing. (If a six-foot-three-inch “great hairy bugger,” as he referred to himself, may be said to have a wing.) After the fair was over, Crispin sent me a “selective” reading list of books on printing, typography, and the history of the book, a list that he and his wife, Jan (cofounder of the press), hand out when they give master classes in printing. Reader, this list is eight pages long—single spaced—and it would take me more than a lifetime to read every book on it. But if I had that extra lifetime, I know I would be a far better person for it, because nowhere does civilization better express itself than in the artistic expression of written language.

Having met Crispin, and having read the list (if not the books), I therefore paid a great deal more attention when I saw, in a small glass case, the hand-made books on display in the Bloomsbury exhibition (see this month’s feature story by Akiko Busch) now touring several college museums. Hogarth Press, founded by 1917 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, produced what became some of the classics of the 20th century, including the first copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. Yet typesetting these books was a slow, painstaking process: each line needed to be set, letter by letter and word by word, to precisely the same length in the composing stick; and once an entire page was set, the resulting galley of thousands of pieces of type had to be locked up an iron frame, or "chase", so that none would fall out when the page was carried over to the press. Then the press, which lay on the Woolfs’ dining room table, had to be inked evenly enough so that, from page to page, the printing was neither too thick nor too thin.

Crudely produced at first, the books made by Hogarth Press represented a commitment not just to ideas, but to ideas as objects lovingly rendered by human hands. And such was the ethos of the Bloomsbury group, friends who painted and carved and sewed and shaped and printed everything they got their hands on. It’s hard to imagine a time when weeks of ink-stained, back-breaking effort went into producing even the simplest book. But so it remains for the remarkable artists who carry on that tradition.

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