Book Reviews The Art of the Book & Beauty and the Book


The Art of the Book: A Review of Some Recent European and American Work in Typography, Page Decoration and Binding, by Charles Holme. London: The Studio, 1914.

Beauty and the Book: Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America, by Megan L. Benton. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

It is always interesting to view books as works of art, and The Art of the Book edited by Charles Holme and Beauty and the Book by Megan L. Benton explore just that territory. Written 85 years apart and emphasizing different facets of the publishing industry, these two books provide an interesting picture of the world of fine editions from the middle of the 19th century to the early part of the 20th century. There is a surprising amount of overlap, and the information in each dovetails nicely.
The Art of the Book
The Art of the Book presents eight essays by different authors on typography and bookbinding. Although these essays draw upon past history, the focus is on the work of printers and binders at the turn of the century. William Morris, founder of the Kelmscott Press, is quoted. “I began printing books with the hope of producing some which would have a definite claim to beauty, while at the same time they should be easy to read and should not dazzle the eye by eccentricity of form in the letters.”

The chief value of this book is not so much in the essays, which are sometimes remarkably brief, but in the numerous illustrations of title pages, initial letters, headers, ornaments, colophons, fonts, and composition. Fine binding is also well represented with clear photos of wonderful examples of tooling, inlays, and various leathers. The elegance and variety of this work is shown in books from Great Britain, Germany, France, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, and America. These illustrations and photographs delight the eye and the mind with their symmetry and balance. They are exquisite.

This book itself is a work of art. The text is set in a block upon the page, ornaments denote new paragraphs, and there are handsome, wide margins. The content is readable and remarkably clear despite having been written in 1914, keeping in mind that language changes over time. It cites many presses and printers of note. This volume is well worth acquiring, and a 1990 reprint from Dorset Press is widely available.

Beauty and the Book, by contrast, covers the period after World War I through the early 1930s. It is a history and a social commentary on the fine book world as it existed at that time. The author recounts the explosive rise of the fine book and its subsequent fall. The following is from her introduction. “Attention here centers on the broader social and cultural phenomenon of fine publishing. The study therefore encompasses the great majority of postwar fine books, the several hundred titles produced by the era’s leading commercial . . . establishments. Among the best known and most active were the Grabhorn Press of San Francisco; the Pyson Printers in New York; Boston’s Merrymount Press; and the firms of William Edwin Rudge and John Henry Nash, located in Mt. Vernon, New York, and San Francisco, respectively. Beauty and the BookThese printers also occasionally published books, but most fine editions were produced via more conventional practices, whereby a publisher hires a printer to produce the books.”

As the author explains, common books had flooded the market by 1920. They were highly affordable due to the massive industrial production of paper. It helped, too, that affluence abounded in the United States. To a certain extent, books were a measure of luxury and leisure, but more than that, they were a measure of culture—class, distinction, and taste. Small wonder, then, that fine books began to make inroads. The use of handmade paper, hand typesetting, and the slower production of small print runs were designed to restore “luster to the cultural entity of the book.” Indeed, producing a fine book was viewed as separate from the industrial and commercial venture. Yet, paradoxically, the production of a fine book was a commercial venture, and even if viewed from a lofty height, it remained a business which demanded profits in order to survive. The publishers and printers of fine books seemed to hold in their minds simultaneously both the noble calling and the need for sound business practices in their day-to-day dealings.

The author presents this period as heady and intoxicating for the producers and purchasers of fine books. She focuses principally on the production of the page—the typography, illustrations, and margins—rather than the binding. Surprisingly, publishers and printers were less interested in fine bindings, and as long as the books were adequately bound they were satisfied. Eventually, though, the bubble burst. Fine books flooded the market and the public became jaded as the downturn of the economy further depressed demand and value. Never again would such fine books be offered in such profusion.

It was an amazing period while it lasted, and the author recounts this unprecedented cultural expansion from its first stirrings to the final flourish. Each chapter is an essay covering an aspect of that era regarding fine books. The relationship between printers, publishers, fine books, and the process of creating them is explored. From these tales book builders may be deemed an eccentric lot who are both creative and opinionated.

Highly readable and well-documented, this book presents an era of American history from a perspective not usually viewed. Explanations are clear, and the author merges history and social commentary smoothly to provide a clear glimpse of the book world at that time. Although some examples of typography are presented, the book’s focus is on why and how these exquisite volumes came to be created.

Both The Art of the Book and Beauty and the Book provide a marvelously in-depth view of the book world in its best attend-the-opera finery. They introduce a facet of elegance not often seen in the era of mass publishing, and they complement each other well in their coverage of information. Taken together they provide a nice running narrative on the evolution of fine printing going forward into the early 20th century.

Lynn Wienck operates The Chisholm Trail Bookstore out of Duncan, OK and can be contacted at http://www.ctbooksstore.com.

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