Editor’s Note: Today’s post is by Tony Sanfilippo. Tony co-owned and managed Svoboda’s Scholarly Books in State College, Pennsylvania for almost a decade until he closed it in 2000. He has since worked in university press publishing. He is currently the director of the Ohio State University Press.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how books have changed over my lifetime and I recently had a couple of experiences that drove home how drastic that change has been between what books used to be and what they are now. I first started thinking about this when I learned a few weeks ago what a book could be in the early- and mid-twentieth century.
When I first moved here to Columbus, Ohio, I began hearing about a group of interesting book nerds who called themselves the Aldus Society, and when I finally tracked them down I immediately joined. Several weeks ago one of our members arranged a private tour of the Chillicothe, Ohio home and studio of Dard Hunter, led by the home and studio’s current owner, Dard Hunter III. It was an amazing experience. The home still felt very much like it must have back when Dard I lived there and still housed his library, which was completely intact, and his curiosities parlor. The one part of the original house that had changed drastically from when Dard I bought it was a studio and press he added, called Mountain House Press. It was there that he created his famous papermaking books.
But any discussion of Hunter has to begin with his work at the Roycroft Colony. Hunter’s time there helped mold the American Arts and Crafts movement, and he left a fingerprint in craftsmanship like few before him, designing and fabricating furniture, stained glass, tile, pottery, and of course, practicing and teaching the art of bookmaking. But he was primarily a papermaker, that was his main focus, and it may have been related to the fact that his father was a newspaper publisher in Chillicothe who endorsed the industrial revolution and the dramatic and seemingly positive change it brought to people’s lives. But while Dard himself also thought progress brought a net benefit, he worried that the rapid adoption of mechanization would destroy craftsmanship and cause the extinction of the ancient arts. So, in what appears to be a response to the rolls and reams of his father’s newsprint he grew up around, Dard decided to really specialize in one thing: the art of handmade paper. He traveled and studied and wrote books about as many of the international traditions of papermaking as he could find, and he designed, published, and often printed books about these processes. And he himself practiced these arts and became a master papermaker. Dard wasn’t only a papermaker though; he also became a master printer, designer, binder, typographer, illustrator, and all-round fabricator. He even designed and cast his own type, ornaments, and punches using hand-moulds he designed and built almost identical to the ones Gutenberg invented, which was really what made movable type and scalable book printing possible, not so much the press. Hunter’s books are among the most beautiful books the early twentieth century produced. And his designs defined a movement.
He married and had a son whom he also named Dard, and Dard II took up his father’s work and eventually mastered every skill his father taught him. While his father was primarily known for the work he did at the Roycroft Colony, Dard II began to build his reputation in Chillicothe, where he worked in his father’s shop. There they continued to make handcrafted books, often on the book arts themselves, but also taking on commercial work, like creating the bookplates for the personal library of William Morrow.
Dard II’s contribution to the world of books was probably crowned by the book he produced to celebrate the work of his father.
Life Work of Dard Hunter
Please use the magnification function on these; it’s absolutely worth it. Kudos to the Marriott Library at the University of Utah for scanning these. What is extraordinary about Dard I’s Mountain Press books is that they are believed to be the first American “one person” books, meaning one person did everything: made all the paper for the edition; designed, cast, and set all the type; created every illustration and ornament; every punch, plate, die-cut, and embossment; wrote the book; laid out the book; and in the case of these two volumes, separately printed an exact, often multicolor, example of his father’s design work and print work — both literary and commercial — reproducing his father’s watermarks, letterheads, book title pages, and advertisements, and then pasted or bound them all into these two volumes. And through these reproductions he told the entire history of his father’s work. And they both did it alone.
So I visited the Hunter home and studio and met Dard III, who is cataloging and preserving his father’s and grandfather’s work. Dard III is also an amazing individual and still continues to run the shop, though his primary focus now seems to be on architectural preservation. He was very generous with extraordinary stories about his once-famous grandfather and father, and I spent the day in awe of their legacies.
I bring up the Hunters because that day contrasted greatly with the rest of my week at the university press I direct. I’m not sponsored by old newspaper money; in fact, quite the opposite. Under the pressures of a neoliberal bureaucracy, I run a university press on the vapors of financial support, and I’m hostage to a ruthless market ruled by a monopoly retailer, a monopoly wholesaler, and consolidation and oligopolies everywhere I look. I was having a discussion with some university press colleagues over email, and we were mourning the loss of the library market, the system that once supported the work of university presses through the purchase of our content, and through which the free-rider problem could sort of be addressed, because if your institution didn’t have a press, at least through purchasing our books, you supported the humanities’ scholarly communications system. Now, libraries are rushing to consolidate, just like commercial publishers and printers. Big Five and Taylor & Francis, meet the Big Ten. Everybody’s consorting, it’s all the rage. How fast can we get to 50, 30, a dozen, one print book for the whole country?
So, in total contrast to the one-person book projects of the Hunters, we’re headed toward the no-person book. These pressures on university presses make outsourcing, automating, and exclusively print-on-demand (POD) or digital delivery more and more necessary. I had a meeting last week with my production department about five of our last eight born POD front list titles where the copies that were sent to the office all had consistency flaws. Pages trimmed off square, pages drifting to the top of the page, covers off register, and you could see it get worse with successive copies. This was not what I signed up for when I chose to work in the world of books. I mentioned to some colleagues the other day that I’ve reached the acceptance step of processing the death of the library market. I don’t publish for them anymore; I publish for Amazon now. I got a little pushback on that, saying that the process and content isn’t changing, just how readers are accessing the content. Perhaps that’s true, but if the readers who used to borrow from a library are instead occasionally purchasing from Amazon, that changes everything about the quality of the physical book. It also impacts pricing, cost recovery, formatting, windowing, and even copy and cover design. It influences a trade list editorially, or if or how you should even attempt one. When I started in publishing, those considerations were very different because we thought we were publishing primarily for putting books into hundreds of libraries all over the world and hopefully a few bookstores and personal libraries. We cared about legibly stamped spines, sewn signatures, archival paper standards. We had staff asking why we’re even doing dust jackets because the librarians just throw them away. Now we ask what the thumbnail will look like, is it readable that small? Screw the archive, glue those signatures, POD everything that isn’t nailed down. How quick can we get the digital to market? Why do we even need print when we have Ctrl+P? It’s a race to the bottom.
Dard II, when working on his book about his father, sometimes wrote from the type drawer as he set the type. That seems insane to me. He’s thinking about what he wants to say and pulling and setting the type simultaneously. I can’t even imagine how the mind does that because it’s composing backward. Dard III told us that this led (or lead) to a few typos that Dard II got some scathing criticism for and which really bothered him. Here’s an example of one of those typos, though in this case (last line on the page, duriug), it’s an upside-down letter, which is not a typo we’d ever see today, but it well illustrates the danger in composing from the type drawer. Here he set the n upside down and missed it, probably because the word had a u in it and he was proofing backward. I think there’s an important lesson there about skipping steps. In this case copyediting was done by the author, typesetter, and printer, which seems akin to a doctor treating herself, or a lawyer representing themselves.
Another story Dard III told us concerned his grandfather’s printer’s mark. A printer’s mark is just what you think it is: a mark left by the printer to note that they printed that volume, like a signature or a logo. Using them was pretty common before offset and digital printing. Now we have barcodes on the last page indicating what POD plant it came from. Dard’s printer’s mark was very unique, and I’m sure there are other elements of it, the significance of which are lost to the ages, but one element was that, as he completed each of his one-person books, he would add a leaf to his printer’s mark. Here’s an example of his mark, and what’s really interesting about this version is that the last leaf representing that very book is falling off the branch. Dard III told me that his grandfather did that because he thought it would be his last book, and indeed it was. I found it a bit of a melancholic story, but I could really relate to that falling leaf. Every book we begin work on, I wonder if it will be our last physical book, and if so, how long will it last, and when will the pages begin to fall out, and when will the colors on the cover begin to change?
Just because a high-quality physical book is my priority, I realize that doesn’t mean it’s a priority of the institution I work for, certainly not libraries anymore, and definitely not for the market. I understand that they all want cheap — I get it. They want the lowest cost possible spent on the object, and some would prefer I stop producing that object entirely and instead just a file, a free file. But if we’re going to reduce the number of physical books that end up in circulation to one, can we at least consider quality and craftsmanship like we used to? Frankly, I’d rather build an exquisite, sturdy, single copy than 100 or 200 disposable copies that will yellow and fall apart before the end of the century. The Hunters’ books will still be here in 2100 in all their glory and flaws. Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say the same of mine.