Essay: The Art of Letterpress

Lauren Cooper, BFR Managing Editor

BFR Bookmaking

Writing is an art. The creative process takes time and skill to perfect and the product, the message contained in the sea of words, has the potential to influence an individual, a nation, or even the world.

But what of the vessel through which writing is conveyed? We live in a world where e-books are on the rise, bookstores are closing, and libraries are spending more of their budgets on databases than paper. The printed book, once responsible for revolutions, is becoming devalued in the face of digitization. It would be easy to let the book go the way of the record and phonograph. Digital publishing is easily accessible and often cheaper than its analog counterpart. But before we disregard it completely, we must remember that the printed book itself is a product of the creative process.

Last Fall I took a course at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library called The Hand-Printed Book in Its Historical Context. As a rare books library, the Bancroft has the feel of museum, and like a museum, its collections contain objects worth marveling at. Some of its materials are historical—a page from a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl stamped by censors at U.S. Customs—while others are completely one-of-a-kind. Let’s face it: they just don’t make illuminated manuscripts like they used to.

But while I learned in this course that the Bancroft preserves ancient and beautiful books from the clutches of Time, I also found that the art of bookmaking has not died out. Next to the Reading Room of the Bancroft—the gallery for these ancient treasures—is a room that houses a working Albion cast-iron printing press from the 1850s and cases upon cases of moveable type. In this studio is everything an artisan would need to create a book, from handmade papers to ink to bindings.

During this class, I underwent an abridged apprenticeship and was eventually initiated into an artisanal process. Some things came quickly: I learned the lingo (dropping your plate of movable type is called making Pie) and refined the skills (arranging your type requires the ability to read both backwards and upside down!). But I also discovered that some things can’t be taught by someone else; sometimes you have to go with your gut. If the italic versions of two letters print so close together that the ink runs, you might have to add an extra space, even if it appears in the middle of a word. If the page becomes too indented, you might have to adjust the amount of force used to work the press. If the pages are thick, you might have to add to the amount of thread used in the binding. You might have to go against convention for the sake of aesthetics.

Like any great art, hand printing is only as good as the intuition and skill of the artist, the bookmaker. The book that I created—The Bookworm with selections from the writings of Robert Hooke (Berkeley: The Bancroft Library Press, 2014)—may not be a work of art. It was my first time at the press after all. But true artisans exist in the field of bookmaking, from the twentieth-generation bookmakers in Italy to the owner of Berkeley’s very own Pettingell Book Bindery.

Last Fall I took blank paper, ink, and a needle and thread, and I made a book from start to finish. And I learned that the pages themselves are just as important as the words they contain.

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