GUEST POST: James Bader on the Stewardship of Words and the Soul of Books

printing press, type case

I love physical books. The way they feel as you turn the pages, the smell of the paper, the cover art, the various shapes and sizes they come in and the decorations that they have. When I am browsing bookstores, whether the local indie or even Indigo, I am drawn to books that feel and look good. To me, these are key elements in what makes reading such a satisfying pastime. So when I read that Will Reuter, who is featured in the Devil’s Artisan issue 89, considers bookmakers to be “the stewards of words,” this resonated with me deeply.

I am new to the world of private presses and independent bookmakers; however, what Nigel Beale has achieved in his article gives us an insight into that world that anyone who enjoys books can appreciate. When I read Will Reuter’s discussion of each careful consideration he must make when creating a book, such as “thumbage” (how large the margins must be to avoid thumbs covering the words), the idea of bookmakers as stewards jumps to the forefront. Just as a good steward ensures the smooth management of a house and is invisible, so too is the master bookmaker. I have never before considered the choices that have gone into the books that I have read to make them legible, accessible and engaging. What Rueter and other independent bookmakers do is protect the words on the page. In this respect they are true artists, enhancing the soul of the material they have been entrusted with.

Nigel Beale shows a deep respect for this process as he conveys the artistry and the passion that bookmakers like Will Reuter have for their craft, and he shows that, just like any other art form, bookmaking is to be revered and admired. Not only does Beale highlight how these artists accomplish their craft, but he also highlights the obsession that is required of them. One of Rueter’s books, Majesty, Order, and Beauty (2007), took eighteen months to complete. Rueter also obsessively collects materials for his bookmaking, chooses each title that he will print, and gets deeply emotional when he discusses his books. All these traits remind me of visionary artists in other disciplines, and they are representative of the passion bookmakers have for physical books.

The idea of artistry in relation to bookmaking must bring us inevitably to the technological elephant in the world of printing. Kindles and e-readers now mean that books are a finger tap away. You can carry the contents of the Library of Alexandria in your pocket, and if what you’re reading doesn’t tickle your fancy you have a thousand other options at the ready. Now this is not all bad. As Rueter himself highlights, the advantages of e-readers are plenty, from accessibility considerations (adjustable font-size) to transportability for a vacation or a commute. What is lost on an e-reader, in my opinion, is the soul of a book. The very thing that bookmakers and private presses are working to protect. E-readers present a very minimal, non-tactile, detached reading experience. What you gain in convenience you lose in personality.

Now at 24, I do not wish to sound like my 90-year-old grandfather grumbling about the rise of the technological age. I have read more from my computer screen these past two years than I have read in physical print. Being able to read academic research online made it possible for me to continue my degree in a world that was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it simply does not carry the same feeling. I missed the pages between my fingertips and the soft sound of paper every time I turned the page. I missed seeing the pages pile up under my left hand as I got sucked into a new story and devoured it. Simply put, I missed the emotion that I find attached to physical books.

This is what The Aliquando Press and the other independent bookmakers are trying to preserve and continue producing. This is why, while reading Beale’s article, I was so struck by the idea of a bookmaker-as-artist. This, I think, is what Will Rueter means when he says, “we are stewards of the words”. It falls to bookmakers to treat the words with reverence and enhance them in every way that they can. Like artists in other disciplines, they put a piece of themselves in their work, in each book that they make, and it shows. When I look at my shelves full of books, I can tell at a glance which are mass-produced trade paperbacks and which are produced by small presses. No wonder Rueter gets emotional discussing the books that he has made over the years. A piece of him lives in each one.

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James Bader has a Masters of Arts in Classics from McMaster University.

Many thanks to James for writing this personal take on one of the featured articles in DA 89. Copies of this issue are now available in print and digital formats over at the Devil’s Artisan website.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.