Why Print? A Physical Experience in Publishing

The layout editor of the small theatre space had designed the display tables for functionality rather than comfort. It showed in the rhythmic tug of my backpack as peruser after peruser pressed passed behind me like a tight-laned overtake that results in a sideswipe.

But as I slid along from table to table, my roving hand hovering just above the surface, I let my eyes fall across the covers, postcards, prints, and booklets arranged by style and genre, their eclectic designs displacing my buzzing thoughts with considerate musings. A grey paperback, glued along the spine and graced with a single watercolor illustration, caught my eye. Picking it up, I turned it over in my hand, checking, as I had been doing of late, the gluing and alignment of the binding along the spine before delving carefully in between the pages for the beauty of the thing. Maintaining the tension of a fresh press was, to me, a given: that new books are meant to be opened like gifts are meant to be unwrapped: by a gentle tugging at the tape, with care not to obliterate the integrity of its newness.

Noting my interest, the publisher, an earnest woman of craft who was greying at the temples and pall in the cheeks, displayed the produce of her passions with the sweep of her hand. The book I was holding, she explained, was a self-proclaimed book on “endangered words,” eighty words that had been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary for preposterous reasons like “urbanization” and “irrelevance.” Basic words such as “acorn” and “doe” and “decade,” each beautifully illustrated by Debra herself on tall facing pages of ample white space, were no longer of value, it seemed, to today’s urban youth. Debra calmly expressed her outrage. Her grandson, she told me, went to Hampstead Heath when the weather was nice and picked pocketfuls of cap-headed nuts the dictionary would no longer deign to define for him. 

Chuckling to myself, I congratulated her on her dainty but detailed illustrations and replaced the book, followed in my retreat by proud explanations that she made her books by hand, sewing and binding them herself on heavyweight paper she held out for me to feel.

Debra was the first of many. It was a fair for small publishers from Fife to Gosport and a handful of continent cities, come to peddle such passions and sport their books “in the flesh.” A stagnant parade of artisans held out their work for admiration and purchase in all manner of book, box, and illustrative print format from simple foil blocks to stamps to lithographic art. A woman with colorful card-backed concertina books gently unbound them to reveal accordion folds of semi-holographic photographs overlaid and dyed and revealing, almost by accident, the faces of elegant Middle-Eastern women in profile. A man with a highly opinionated display of bright illustrations and wild fonts, sold me a stapled booklet entitled “Why Publish Noise?” for 50p with gradient screen-printed pages. “An expanded definition of publishing surpasses the production of books and magazines to include electronic mail and computer bulletin boards, fax, telephone, radio & cable video, artist multiples,” it preached at me from a quote by one Robert Duncan on the opening page. As the page slid from a mature pink to a sunset orange, it went on: “Noise is those particles which escape automatic assimilation by the cognitive machine.” As the page slid into a citrus sort of yellow, Mr. Duncan’s point came home at last: “Print noise would be that information which can never become part of corporately appropriated mainstream media. Experimental literature, book art, visual/verbal, anarchist & radical criticism are all examples of print noise.” The quote was followed by a list of reasons, all answering the question on the cover. Apart from the irony of its stilted speech, I took this to be a worthy defense of physical forms of publishing, a fighting companion to Louisa Preston’s insistence on physical books as facilitators of organic experiences. A 50p I was proud to pay.

At a table on one end of the curling serpent, a bending older man in thick glasses was pressing his finger to the cover of a book and speaking in low-registered hums to a woman holding out a folded arrangement of connected old postcards. The postcards were tagged with the musings of an eight-year-old on their reverse sides: tags written, it seemed, by the eight-year-old version of this very older man. Sidling up, I poked through a box of plain-bound books turned spine-up, lapsing into an elemental state of affection that was all nerves and feelers, a state in which my rougher-edged senses of romance and injustice bubbled up to peruse the titles in the hopes of making a match.

Never one to resist a store of stories living secret lives of their own from cover to cover, I surfed until my eyes fell to one small book, brown of face and slender and of an unremarkable appeal, in the way I might (on a good day) see myself from the outside looking on. I had once read a pocket edition of The Diamond as Big as the Ritz during my underground commutes, an experience that combined my glamorous Fitzgerald – my darling literary giant – with the personal treasure effect of a handheld classic, and the form of this book recalled that experience to mind. Sister of the Artist, by its own definition, was a book about artistic siblings constrained by the patriarchy which unleveled their talents through ancient convention. It was not a world I knew, and yet one I knew very well. Peering at the rest of the tables I had yet to visit, I was still unable to put it down, knowing I wouldn’t deserve it a second time, in the way the men I’ve left can only ever be mine in the past tense. Cracking the cover to the first page of the tale, my eyes rolled over the text, watching two careful male hands cracking an egg, rolling the yolk from shell to shell, lifting it gingerly by the membrane with the precision one would expect of an artist. I fished for my wallet.

Charlie smiled mildly as he accepted my tenner and rooted for change, fielding my questions with his satisfied hum like an elongated full-stop tacked on the end of his sentences. CB Editions, he explained, started with an inherited £2000 he wanted to make the most of. After ten years of publishing books he discovered himself, fans were coming to him with books of their own. Costs me nothing to admit I was enchanted.

As I walked out with the books I had bought in hand, my memory of their vendors clung to them, the books a composite of experience over the course of an afternoon. The books themselves, I came, by degrees, to acknowledge, were the sort of adoptees to my collection that came with the pride of having won the bid for my attention through the weight of their heft, the crispness of their binding, the poise of their prose. The “person” of the physical book was always a romance to me, a form of honesty that showed in the grey lines of further text peeking through the white spaces in the pages, in the lively endpapers greeting me like an inspirational quote hung over the door, in the clearly-defined boundaries of the world which is born with the front cover and drawn to a close with the back one.

There was a sweetness, too, in their origins, the products of inspiration and interest, the editions limited by low-count print-runs, their content exclusive to the mediums I could hold in my hand. Why print noise? I thought, returning to the screen-printed booklet exulting me to indulge in print propagation. Why print books? Why Print?

“Because…global transmission delimits a sustain-able cultural ignorance.”

“Because experimental publishing is the reversal of a disposable media which reduces all information to identical & easy to swallow info pills…”

“Because…a subliminal campaign of strategically administered doses of discrete print noise can alter the cultural pillars of rationality forever.

“Because if you’re going to say something, you might as well be heard, otherwise you’re talking to yourself.”

Because sometimes it’s the noise, physical and visceral and leaping up from a page, that has the most to say. Because sometimes it’s the way the information is delivered that matters the most – sometimes, as with a child taken in, the why-who-where background information is inseparable from the what. Because sometimes you need something to show you your reflection, speak to your desires, and mourn with you the loss of our most basic definitions. Because sometimes you need to hold something in your hand and you need it to speak to you in a physical sort of language that knows what it is to exist, to make a mark, to tell the truth.

Elle Eccles