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Why Book Arts Matter

By Kathleen Walkup © 2003

Written for the newsletter of the Society for the History of Authorship, Readership & Publishing, Spring 2003.


SEVERAL YEARS AGO I was a student in a bibliographic seminar with a renowned scholar. As a practitioner of bookmaking, I found myself more and more concerned as the seminar progressed at the sheer volume of misleading or simply incorrect information that the scholar was passing on to the students. There were two of us in the seminar with extensive hands-on experience (my specific production knowledge is with letterpress printing, although I was also employed in the offset trade for several years). We spent our evenings chuckling over the unlikely production scenarios being discussed during the day. We also wished that the scholar could allow for correction and discussion in class, but it was not that kind of seminar. Finally, I began to wonder if in fact the incorrect knowledge that my fellow and sister students were absorbing even mattered very much in the long run. Wasn’t it true that the scholar had been passing on this same misleading information for years without any evident effect on either the scholar’s reputation or the students under the scholar’s tutelage?

Actually, I suspect that it does matter. As the book as artifact comes under closer scrutiny by historians, students, and scholars of literary criticism, an understanding of just how its component parts came together should provide greater insight into its overall material functionality. An appreciation for the basic production methods of bookmaking allows for the recognition and acknowledgement of anomalies when they appear. Similarly, research may yield odd disparities and unlikely occurrences among the textual explanations of, say, a particular printing methodology that the scholar can feel more confident in questioning if he or she has a solid baseline of practical knowledge. Curious references to unlikely production scenarios not only prompt caution with regard to the immediate source, but suggest the need to query other production-based statements the writer may be making.

Hands-on knowledge can be useful in iconographic study as well. A nineteenth century advertisement for Hoestetter’s Stomach Bitters has had a home for some time among my slides of women printers. In the foreground, a row of women are sitting on low stools at small platen presses, their backs to the viewer. Behind them, a row of men are standing, likewise turned, in front of a bank of type cabinets. From this evidence it is reasonable to assume that the seated women feed the platen presses but perform no other tasks requiring movement such as inking, lifting the forms in and out of the bed, or even removing the stacks of printed paper to the bindery, while working in this mixed-gender environment. In another image from the same time period, a single woman is shown standing at a large treadle-powered platen press. The image is on a poster advertising the Women’s Co-operative Printing Union in San Francisco.1 That the woman is standing is indicative of a much more interactive relationship with the machine than that of the women in the stomach bitters ad. This woman is actually a printer, with control over the same facets of the operation that the first women lacked. The researcher without first-hand printing experience might notice and comment on the disparity of these postures, but might not link the two postures to separate practical working methods and might not undertake, say, a census of employees in the print shop to determine who might be performing other work there.

Granted, iconography can be misleading. Many ads for early typesetting machinery show elegantly dressed young women sitting daintily at various Rube Goldberg-style contraptions which, according to the makers, will finally allow type to be set mechanically. More than one of these machines resembles more a home pipe organ than a piece of useable typesetting equipment. The misleading information in these ads, however, is the appearance of women as the operators. In fact, the ads suggest not that women would be operating these machines – an unlikely occurrence in the face of the powerful typographers’ unions – but that the machines are so easy to operate even a woman can do it.

Mining the books themselves for their artifactual evidence is, for the maker of books, an essential component of research. The idea that microfilm or digital representation could substitute for the hands-on knowledge of the artifact itself becomes unthinkable. For non-contemporary books I want to know the condition of the type or plate from which the book was printed, the depth and evenness of the impression, the heft and opacity of the paper, the production method of any images, the quality of the binding materials and whether the book is in its original binding or, if not, when it might have been rebound. Articulating the rationale for the often crude productions of the American Colonial period, appreciating the high level of mechanical reproduction in the nineteenth century, and evaluating the reliance on hand-work in the machine-age printing of the Bauhaus are acts which the book scholar can undertake, of course, but are actions which become more viscerally understandable in the wake of actually having undertaken them.

I am not suggesting that any scholar whose interest lies within the materiality of the book would not comprehend and appreciate the same aspects of the book without practical training, nor am I suggesting that every scholar with an interest in incorporating artifactual aspects of the book into his or her research should do hands-on training. On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt. Bibliographic presses connected to library schools, now largely made redundant, recognized the value of practice coupled with theory. Acknowledging the need to understand process as part of the scholarly training could lead, at the very least, to discussions between the scholar and the person with hands-on experience. These days that person might be an artist’s bookmaker.

I should point out, first, that artist’s bookmakers are by no means necessarily acquainted with the traditional processes of bookmaking, printmaking or typography. Any serious maker is, however, highly involved with the basic operation of the book itself. This involvement requires a certain setting aside of the belief that we all know how to operate a book, as the conservator Gary Frost puts it. What, for instance, really happens when we open the cover of a book? How is the reader likely to proceed through the book? What prompts different approaches? In what ways might access to the content inside be controlled? An artist might consider, for instance, whether she wants the book to lie flat, enhancing access, or perhaps snap shut when not held, thus challenging access. The artist’s bookmaker might investigate structural methods that would exploit the option for random access of the text, explore means of interrupting the narrative flow at precise points, acknowledge the hide-&-reveal pattern of page turning. These challenges to the book form stem from a profound awareness of its operation, one which the scholar, invigorated by the combination of icon and materiality in the artifact, might find compelling.

As a teacher as well as a practitioner, it would only be fair for me to mention that while encouraging the generally hands-off scholar toward an awareness of bookmaking, I spend a good deal of my classroom energy compelling the hands-on artist toward an equally balanced approach through a broad study of print culture while she is interrogating the form. To foster this approach, I have developed courses that combine seminar study with studio practice. In Private Lives, Public Editions: Women Writers & Artists in Paris, students study the women of the post-WWI avant garde by reading the poetry and prose of the writers and examining the fine and practical art being produced, as well as studying critiques of the period and reading individual biographies. The students then use this understanding as a basis for art-making. They might, for instance, work collaboratively on an illustrated broadside of a poem by H.D. after reading her poetry and listening to an expert speak about H.D.’s work, or they might create an original artwork incorporating the method of pochoir that the artist Sonia Delauney used so effectively in her books and even in her fashions. Students also create an internet zine, a contemporary form of the little magazine, that interweaves their own work with compendious narrative and visual biographies of the women they have studied. This class, which has now become a core course for sophomores at my institution is, I believe, a teaching approach in which both the theoretically- and the creatively-based students can meet in a mutual learning environment in order to focus on print culture in the most inclusive sense of that phrase.

Increasingly, the study of literature involves the study of its material form, another curriculum ripe for collaboration between the student of literary criticism and the student of visual arts. The notion of visual poetics, or the material embodiment of language, is tightly woven into my curriculum, a conflation underwritten by my placement in the English Department. Institutionally, many of us find resonance in the struggle with institutional placement and support. A mutual acknowledgement of the intrinsic worth of our separate disciplines and the willingness to seek inventive solutions that establish a sort of equal billing for the various disciplinary threads that can be woven into a new whole cloth, seems an admirable goal of print culture studies.

I recently curated an exhibition whose open-submission invitation stated the curatorial policy: an exploration of contemporary codices.2 My intention was quite specific, that is, to move away, albeit briefly, from the preponderance of sculptural book objects that dominate most book arts exhibitions, many of them, unfortunately, with little in the way of substantive content to recommend them. While the gallery director and I received nearly 100 works which responded directly to my statement, the errant entries we received ranged from a book shaped like a banana to, in one extreme case, a miniature rabbit hutch. I have since begun suggesting to students that, should they decide to enter a juried exhibition, they had better look up the definition of any unclear words in the call for work.
I would hope that the uninterrogated statement regarding materiality —the scholarly equivalent of a birdhouse entry — happens with rarity. But I would also hope that the scholar with a shaky grasp of the material aspects of the book or its practical production methodology might consider pathways to acquiring that knowledge through dialogue with a hands-on practitioner or through opportunities for work in the studio.

1. see Roger Levenson, Women in Printing: Northern California, 1857—1890. Santa Barbara, California: Capra Press, 1994.
2. [re]Readings: Artists’ Books Now. Gallery Lux, San Francisco, 6 December 2002—14 February 2003. Kathleen Walkup, curator; Lorraine Lupo, gallery director. Checklists issued.

About the Author:

Kathleen Walkup is an associate professor of English/Book Arts and director of the Book Arts Program at Mills College in Oakland, California. Her recent ongoing work is entitled Library of Discards.

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