Sunday, March 4, 2012

"This great and trivial story": a love-affair with print

At the time when this story begins, the Stanhope press and inking-rollers were not yet in use in small provincial printing-offices. Angoulême, although its paper-making industry kept it in contact with Parisian printing, was still using those wooden presses from which the now obsolete metaphor 'making the presses groan' originated. Printing there was so much behind the times that the pressmen still used leather balls spread with ink to dab on the characters. The bed of the press holding the letter-filled 'forme' to which the paper is applied was still made of stone and so justified its name 'marble'. The ravenous machines of our time have so completely superseded this mechanism--to which, despite its imperfections, we owe the fine books produced by the Elzevirs, the Plantins, the Aldi and the Didots--that it is necessary to mention this antiquated equipment which Jérôme-Nicolas Séchard held in superstitious affection; it has its part to play in this great and trivial story.

--Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac, trans. by Herbert J. Hunt

I am fascinated with late-18th-century/early-19th-century French and British printing and bookselling. It started as a fluke. I was introduced to the Albion press owned by my university's rare books library at around the same time that I was brainstorming the NaNoWriMo project that became The Printer's Tale, and I decided on a whim that my main character and her father should be printers. I already knew that they lived in provincial pre-revolutionary France, I already knew the thrust of my main character's story, I just needed to know what she did for a living before the novel got started.

I thought this would perhaps be a minor detail, but as the present working title would suggest, printing quickly came to take up a great deal of space in the novel. I talked with librarians, checked out musty old books, and researched the history and the art of printing. I parlayed this information into a final project for one of my first-semester courses, in addition to insinuating it piecemeal into my November novel, but even after the semester was over, this new-found fascination wouldn't leave me alone. I examined the bindings of old books in the local used bookstores; I sought out laid paper and fell in love with the way it felt beneath my fingers. I enrolled in a research seminar taught at the rare books library. When I had the opportunity, I took a graduate history course entitled The Hand-Printed Book in Its Historical Context, where I spent six weeks learning the history of hand-printing via a series of example books culled from the library's extensive catalogue, and six weeks using that same Albion press that had sparked the obsession a few years earlier to typeset and print a short manuscript of my own.

In some academic circles it's considered a bit gauche to pay too much attention to the materiality of the text. Yes, changing conventions in printing, editing, and publishing do affect the way texts are received and read, but--so the assumption seems to run--not the way texts are written, which is what should matter. It's the job of a literary scholar to work with the text at hand, not to fuss with the fact that the books we read now are things as well as texts.

But while the things I've learned about printing and bookselling may not be central to most of the work that I do, I nonetheless feel a frisson of excitement every time a literary text references the mode of its own production. When I opened up my copy of Lost Illusions and read this first paragraph, I was transported back to the Printing Room in the second story of the Bancroft Library, sunlight streaming in through the huge windows, myself standing poised with hands near the press bar as a classmate ran the roller over the ink which made its snicker-snack reverse-suction sound, waiting for the forme to be inked and the paper to be positioned before pulling the press down, thud-click, and releasing it again to reveal a perfectly-printed page.

When The Printer's Tale begins, provincial printing is already dying out. The catalyst for a great deal of the story is the reluctant necessity of my main character giving up her life as a printer in order to find work that pays. But the magic of the novel--and it's me we're talking about, so at times this magic is literal--is so tied up in printing, in the idea of work done with one's hands. The groaning of the wooden press, the sickly-sweet turpentine smell of the ink, the cool lead of the type sorts, these things matter. And part of what I love about working in the eighteenth century is that sometimes I can feel them there, behind every book I read, reminding me of the number of hands that these words have passed through and worked their magic upon.

It's not a particularly academic pleasure. It won't make itself heard in my seminar papers, or future conference papers or articles or dissertation chapters. But it is a pleasure that, for me at least, gives my academic work weight and heft, that makes it more material and that makes it matter.


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