“More than gold, lead has changed the world. And more than the lead in the gun, the lead in the printer’s typecase.” — Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, 1742-1799.
A few years ago, while completing my graduate degree, one of my academic colleagues and good friend and I were writing our papers at the Angus Glen Library. For some pre-writing inspiration, I pulled out a book from my bag: The Solid Form Of Language: An Essay On Writing And Meaning by Bringhurst. It was beautifully printed with a gorgeous cotton cover that had immense texture & letterpress embelishment. It caught the attention of Andrew and he stopped writing (who at this point was beginning to have a curiosity for different papers and what sorts of pens write best on certain papers). He gasped at the beauty of the book and how it felt in his hands, and proceeded to skim through its pages. He made a slight connection that the book’s tactility reminded him of another book that he had purchased at the York bookstore. Later that evening, he enthusiastically called me to tell me that his book was also published by the Gaspereau Press! He admitted that he actually did not know what the book was about, but he picked it up simply because of the way it looked and felt in his hands. He loved the laid paper and hand-pressed cover. (Turns out it was grossly related to Canada, history, East Asian intersections, poetry, William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell — all subjects that he was interested in at the time). Though we do have quite a few common interests in and out of academia, I have found that the most profoundly interesting commonality is our appreciation for paper, ink, and the form of traditional printing methods. Whether for a design major or a history major, or anyone for that matter, the way that a book is printed can change the entire experience of it.
In the recent controversy surrounding the Christmas distribution rush of the Giller Prize winning novel, The Sentimentalists, to the greater Canadian audience, letterpress printing has been briefly put in the spotlight. The beautifully printed book, again published by the Gaspereau Press, received international attention after its author, Johanna Skibsrud, took home (and the youngest to do so) the 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The original edition features a sewn paperback with letterpress-printed jacket, but because of its method of printing and publishing, would be difficult to produce at a volume to meet the urgent demand caused by both the win and the gifting season (less than 10 days after the prize was awarded, paper was on hand for an immediate reprint of 20,000 copies by Douglas & McIntyre — the now partnered trade paperback publisher). However, the Gaspereau Press will continue to publish the quality copies so that readers do have a choice of which version of the book to purchase. For me? Definitely the letterpress-printed book by Gaspereau. Andrew Steeves thanks the community of supporters on his blog, “Literature, at the heart of it all, only thrives where there exists a community of shared interests, shared concerns, and shared fates. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that Johanna’s story, and our story, is also your story, because you engaged it and helped make it all so.”
The physicality of a letterpress-printed book or piece of stationery is undeniably beautiful and tactile. It is a visual and sensual experience that cannot be compared to digitally printed materials widely circulated today. Conceptually, letterpress printing holds a powerful connection that marries modern graphic design with traditional artisan forms of production and the indisputable beauty of hand craftsmanship. Every piece of hand crafted letterpress stationery stands as a testament to the impact that printing has had on the world’s civilization. It is easy to take for granted how things are made, in a developed world of mass production. But I cannot forget or lose my curiosity of an object’s construction, or else I become totally ignorant of the objects that surround me, objects which I consume, that partially define who I choose to be. The depth to which we can all appreciate what we have is greatly influenced by whether or not we investigate how it functions in relationship to the world. As we continue to experiment and create in our studio, we get a chance to rediscover the processes which the artists before us had to master — in order for us to have what we have today.
Merry Christmas in letterpress! With Love, made lovingly by hand, from Palettera. XO.