Thursday, April 14, 2011


Books that Matter for People Who Care

One of my favorite local bookshops, Left Bank Books, holds a series of winter and spring Sunday afternoon talks on varied themes, given by all sorts of bookish speakers, complete with sherry and cheese and crackers. They call it their Lyceum. Most civilized. This past Sunday it was my great pleasure to go there and meet and listen to publisher David R. Godine, whose recent catalogue celebrates his company's 40 years in the book business. The bookshop is tiny and the crowd easily filled the chairs and aisles. A powerpoint presentation cast large images of fine press books and trade titles high up on the wall, as David spoke about his early years as a letterpress printer, the move to offset printing, and life as a discerning publisher determined to print quality books, books that are simply great and deserve to be in print. He learned to print on a Vandercook Proof Press (me, too!) as a student at Dartmouth, set up his publishing operation with a Kelly 3 Press in a dilapidated old barn in Brookline, Massachusetts, and proceeded to spend several decades producing Books that Matter for People Who Care (his publishing motto, and what a fine one it is). A few notes I took during his talk:

His favorite Godine book, in his top three at least, is Moral Reflections on the Short Life of the Ephemeron by Thomas Boreman, 1970, with hand-colored illustrations of great delicacy, suited to their subject, the mayfly. (Want, WANT.)

His favorite typefaces are in the Bembo/Minion/Garamond family, "because they're elegant," and he also loves the Scotch faces like Miller and Bell, "heavy and gutsy." He doesn't like sans serif types; he doesn't think people are comfortable reading a whole book in sans serif.

An audience member questioned him twice about the future of publishing. He said he gets depressed when he goes into most bookshops, but we're very lucky here in New England to have the number of independent bookshops that we do. He said, "I can make a living in New England. But Mississippi - three bookstores in the whole state - forget it."

On the big chain store: "We've never sold to Borders. Anyone who sold to Borders should have their head examined."

On book-reading devices (such as the Kindle, though he didn't name it specifically), he speculated that in the future such things will not be treasured or even be able to be used. They will be obsolete as pieces of technology, replaced by some other thing. Not so the book, which was perfected in its essentials many centuries ago. (Oh, how I agree! Kindle - it's a piece of plastic, people. Not something alive in your hands, warm, made of wood and paper and cloth and imagination and mind and heart and soul. Fine for best-sellers, perhaps, and genre fiction, textbooks, but anything else...? But I digress.)

Despite saying that the next ten years would be difficult ones for the book trade, which is changing so rapidly it's hard to chart what's happening now, much less predict the future, he ended his talk with a note of optimism, quoting from Kenneth Clark's series Civilisation (and I now see that Clark was quoting Ruskin, in saying "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last."). David Godine elaborated thus:

"I really think art is the one thing in this culture that has a chance of survival... if you can make your books art, you'll be all set. Make books as art, make books people read, make books people can afford."

I could go on and on. Do me a favor - browse Godine's wonderful backlist (and their frontlist too). If you're anything like me, you'll recognize many books you already own. I could recommend many of their titles on cookery and gardening, but a good place to start is with the wonderful selection of books about books, and the 40th anniversary poster, hand-silkscreened, showing Godine himself with a composing stick in hand. The sidebar quote tells us that the poster commemorates the time in which:

"The narrow, personal world of trade publishing was still run by opinionated individuals, whose names were often eponymous with their companies, and who more or less published what they liked and did their crying in private..."

This is the kind of publisher to support, and Left Bank Books is the kind of bookshop to treasure. How lucky am I, to live just a few miles down the road.

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