Beauty and the Book

Professor Megan Benton, in her book Beauty and the Book: Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America, examines the role of the book in the early decades of the Twentieth Century. The book included a history of fine printing in America during this time period. However, I was mainly reading it to find out more about how books were perceived culturally during the changes that happened during this time period, in particular the industrialized mass production of books. I suspected correctly that there would be parallels between that time period and what the printed word has experienced for the past ten years with increasing speed now that electronic media has taken over our consumption of written text.

In the 1920s and 30s, having fine press books in the home was a symbol of status in society and during the years of the depression, hearkened back to a Golden Age.

Gatsby’s library as depicted in Baz Luhrmann’s film interpretation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Books were a status symbol and owned as objects rather than to be read.

Fine press printers emphasized the “values” they saw inherent in producing quality, fine print books and held that up in stark contrast to the mass produced volumes of literature and Limited Edition subscriptions being advertised. Examples of this higher purpose printing include Master Porter Garnett at Carnegie Tech’s Laboratory Press in Pittsburgh. Questions were raised about whether the content of what was being printed at this time was what deserved to be printed (based on the high standards and values of a select group of printers) or if the authors and their novels being mass produced were selected for how popular they were to the main stream public and how well those titles would sell. For example, some Limited Editions subscriptions of books were collected by families who wanted to show off a private library as a form of status symbol. The books were objects to fill shelves or decorate coffee tables rather than books that were read for their content.

For those who saw printing as a philosophical calling, the quality of the paper, the printing, the selection of the typography and design, in addition to the content of the book, all mattered. Simply disseminating the content to the mass public was not the top priority for these gentlemen.

A Vandercook Press from the early 20th Century. Photo from

While I read this book, I was thinking about how today text is spewed out like a fire hose online, choking us daily with more content (arguably much of it of little value) than we can or want to absorb. Was this what it felt like to those fine press printers when the mass production of cheap books flooded the market? The typical middle class family went from owning a few good quality family books to being able to purchase or borrow larger number of inexpensive books of arguably lesser quality texts. On the one hand, there was more affordable access to literature than before. On the other hand, what was being produced and read was arguably limited to what sold the best rather than for it’s literary value.

I feel a similar revulsion to much of the poorly-written content that I see published online, and I feel a real sadness to hear about teenagers and even younger children spending so much time reading on devices and less time with physical books. I’m not a Luddite by any means. I founded and sold a small legal technology company and wrote a few books about the value of technology to increase access to justice. But I still understand the importance and the value of quality, physical books in our lives.

The reaction by the fine press printers in the 1920s and 30s moved printing, as Prof. Benton says in her book, from “fine printing” to “good printing” which has left us with mass produced books today that adhere to book design standards and principles. I wonder what reaction the book world will have to the shift to electronic media and if that reaction (or perhaps backlash) will bring about a renewed interesting fine press books. I’ll end with this inspirational passage from the epilogue of Benton’s book:

Books are more than tools for intellectual inquiry and access to information. Books have always played multiple and complex roles in our lives, roles that transcend the business of delivering a text. …Books matter, that is, not simply texts. In the shift to electronic technology, of course, the physical form of the printed book would disappear: the textures, colors, odors, and the heft of the paper, ink, thread, glue and cloth. …What would be lost is a fundamental, and fundamentally meaningful, quality of book culture, the inescapably sensual and personal encounters with an object that is at once tangible and symbolic, commercially specific and culturally boundless.

As Benton explains, there is function and there is value and there is a flux between the two. Personally, I’m hoping this surge in electronic media publishing produces a backlash effect that renews interest in good writing, fine printing, and quality books. I also hope any renewed attention to quality of the printed book is accessible and appeals across all socio-economic backgrounds.

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