Thoughts From AWP: The Return of Letterpress

One of the most pleasing themes of this year’s AWP was a return to handcrafted books. Some will argue that handcrafted books never left, but the popularity of hand-binding, typesetting and letterpress has only come to the fore in the past couple of years.

According to many panelists, hand-bound books, broadsheets and chapbooks are physical artifacts that will never be replaced by the impersonality of e-books. While e-readers are convenient and often cost much less than their physical counterparts, the physicality of each book is a distinct experience: its thickness, its typography, the way the pages wear as it is read. Every book experienced on an e-reader may have distinct cover art, but the physicality of the device is always the same. That artifact, the book, can commemorate a specific time and place. Especially if you’re a fan of a particular author and get a copy of your favorite book signed, or if you take a book on vacation with you, it’s easy to associate it with the experiences you had while you held it in your hand – the page you tore stuffing it into your bag before boarding a flight, the drip of fruit juice where it spilled as you sat on the beach while reading.

For those interested in the creation of printed books, the physicality of creating an artifact is in itself a means of expression. Choosing a typeface, papers, designing covers and title pages gives the bookbinder total artistic control over every aspect of the book’s design. Many hand-binders create runs of fewer than a hundred copies of a given book, making each copy more like a limited edition artwork, and less like a mass-market printed book. Nowadays, when even authors who print their own books use some kind of word processing software to write their works, and the process of hand-binding a book can provide a welcome antidote to hours spent sitting in front of a computer. As more aspects of our life – our jobs, our entertainment, our communication – involve sitting in front of a screen, many people are looking for ways to get away from their computers and into handling real objects in the real world. But although most aspects of book binding are strictly physical processes, there are certainly ways that the computer age has impacted letterpress printing. Computer-printable plastics used in the creation of letterpress plates, typesetting for aspects of a work that would be difficult with physical type, digital means of image creation can all contribute to a hand-bound book without destroying its satisfying physicality.

But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of book bindery is its potential to build community. Maybe you love setting type but hate the smell of glue – find a friend who’s not thrilled with the fiddliness of typesetting but loves binding. Teams make the work of things like daily-produced broadsheets or larger runs of hand-bound books easier, and the finished book becomes an artifact of creating not just of beautiful work of literary art, but a community of like-minded souls.

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