Arion Press in the Age of Kindle

Johannes Gutenberg

In 1455, the Gutenberg Era began in Europe with an edition of the Bible, using movable type and a printing device adapted from an existing wine press. Known as the “42 line Bible,” only about 180 copies of this seminal book were made. Forty-eight are known to still exist. This is one of them, the copy housed at the Library of Congress.

Gutenberg Bible, Library of Congress.

For the next 450 years the printed book reigned supreme as the principal repository for the knowledge and wisdom of mankind. Books were printed in extravagantly opulent editions with tipped in art; they were also printed in cheap pulp editions that were meant to be read once and tossed. Today, both ends of this printing spectrum are on life support or so claim the digerati futurists. True, you don’t have to do a Google search to know that newspapers and book publishers are vanishing faster than disappearing ink. The Gutenberg Era may eventually survive only in the name of its eponymous electronic iteration, a website dedicated to making available online all the world’s books that are in public domain. wiki link

This bibliophile’s doomsday scenario is not the cry just of electronic media pundits but is voiced also by old-garde publishers such as Jason Epstein who in the 1950s began Anchor Books, and in the next decade was one of the founders of The New York Review of Books.

As early as July of 2001 he addressed the emergence of digital publishing in this famous article:—“Reading: The Digital Future” link

Over Christmas of the previous year I had seen a segment on PBS’ The News Hour that featured a new edition of that most revered of all books, The Bible. But this was no ordinary edition. It was being produced by the Arion Press, a till then little-known publisher/printer of letterpress books in editions of about 400 copies, tailored to the rarefied tastes of high end book collectors. It is the last remaining letterpress in this country that creates books starting with editorial selection, font design, layout, original art illustration, to sheet by sheet letterpress printing, and finally, hand binding. They produce every step of bookmaking except for the paper. Each book is the work of a small team of dedicated masters. introduction link

Arion Press, an outgrowth of San Francisco’s older and beloved Grabhorn Press had recently lost its downtown lease and had just moved, with help from the city of San Francisco and private gifts, to new and larger quarters in the Presidio. The PBS video gives an engrossing thumbnail sketch of how publisher Andrew Hoyem brought his biblical dream to fruition, and why he chose the New Revised Standard Edition for this historic venture. He entertains the real possibility that this will be the last letterpress Bible to ever be printed.

The Arion Press Bible in two volumes.

In the course of the video Hoyem introduces journalist Elizabeth Farnsworth to the typecasters and binders who will be featured here and in the following videos:

After viewing this news segment I decided, even though I am not a rare book collector, to become a subscriber to the Arion Press. The worthiness of its mission claimed me; the proud tradition of the artisan/worker dedicated to a time-consuming and handmade craft in an era of mass/mindless production had resonance for me in its very labor intensive, artisanal techniques—not unlike the meticulous way we make movies.

A few years after my subscription began, Mr. Hoyem, at my pleading, was able to locate a copy of the Arion Press’ sold out edition of Moby Dick, its sixth published work, from 1979. catalog—Moby Dick or the Whale link

This great book, widely acknowledged to be the greatest of all American novels, has become the centerpiece (also in size and weight) of my personal library and now, as I am beginning a film titled Everybody Loves Whales--- Moby Dick and its leviathan presence has surfaced center stage in my research and preparation. Here is a photo of the title page of the Arion Press edition that shows the paper’s texture as well as the bleed-through “bite” of the letterpress type from the next page, visible just below and to the right of the title.

Arion Press edition of “Moby Dick.”

When the PBS interview was made in late 2000, Andrew Hoyem referred to himself and his press as a “condor,” a near extinct species. You might imagine that 21st century computer printing techniques are his rivals. Little could Hoyem have suspected ten years ago that the real nemesis would be this:

The Kindle

Each month Amazon trumpets a rising chorus of converts to its e-reader; overall, many of its new titles have downloads nearly equal to the sales of print copies, and a recently published mystery novel did have greater downloads its opening weekend than traditional hardcover sales--- a first.  Even for a print diehard such as me (whose writing exists ironically only in an electronic medium) the convenience of having many books embedded in a lightweight tablet is tempting, especially as I lug a carry-on suitcase laden with books into my in-flight overhead storage bin, even as my fellow passengers sort through a king’s library of electronic text on their flashy new iPads. But… as Hoyem points out while holding a page of the Bible up to the light, the bite of letterpress printing is tactile as well as visual. Run your fingertips over the embossed letters. Yes, the obvious prolix retort to this may be “So, just how much printing today is done on handmade, archival paper by a century old machine that casts lead-alloy letters one at a time?” Well, I have about a dozen such books; the Arion Bible, unfortunately, is not one of them.

CBS’ Sunday Morning also profiled Arion Press and its Bible at about the same time as the News Hour segment. I found this video only recently. It introduces us to some of the artisans who actually “created’ this bible, such as master typecaster Lewis Mitchell, binder Peggy Gotthold, master printer/typographer Gerald Reddan, designer Sumner Stone and painter Thomas Ingmeyer. A surprise appears about eight minutes into the video when Hoyem shows the “Rube Goldberg” maze of wires that allowed the ancient Monotype Casting Machine to interface with an early 90s Mac, driven by floppy discs, (remember this was a decade ago) to more easily set the type, easing the burden of the massive two-tiered Monotype keyboard. Journalist John Blackstone wends his way through the maze of Arion’s machine room:

Back in the days when the A&E cable channel still had real “arts” programming, its Open Book program hosted by Perri Peltz, presented a two-part story about Arion Press. It starts with a nod to the Bible but proceeds to document in loving detail various steps of the printing and binding process, along the way introducing us also to master bookbinder Leif Erlandsson.

Hoyem explains the singular design of each Arion book. He shows us Jean Toomer’s Cane, Melville’s Moby Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the special visual intricacies of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. As he turns each page you experience a tactility at your fingertips. Having several of these books I can confirm that unique sensation. Even allowing for the well-printed books of a company such as Folio Editions, there is a multiple sensory experience in examining any one of Arion’s books. The weight, smell, touch and sight of such a finely crafted object is unlike any book experience you have ever had.

But an even stronger sense of the physicality and complexity of producing these books is in the next video, the second part of the A&E program. It features the role of the Monotype Casting machine in the production of Arion’s books. M&H (Mackenzie and Harris) is the foundry and type-casting arm of Arion Press; it is a respected San Francisco company dating back to 1915. Hoyem folded it into the press shortly after he took over in 1973. Lewis Mitchell has one of those really cool, exotic jobs that every young boy could dream of, if that boy could even fathom what “letterpress printing” is in our digital age.

Woodcut of printers at Gutenberg press.

Peter Stoelzl, who has been with the press since 1974 and who served a six year apprenticeship, is the Monotype keyboard operator. He plays the keys like the late Scott Ross seated at the dual ranks of a Blanchet harpsichord, sallying through a Scarlatti sonata:

Aside from the personal pleasure of having a library of printed books that I can pull down, page through, and love for their sheer physicality, there must be something about the process of printing that I find so attractive. My father had his own small machine shop where I worked at his lathes most weekends and summers through high school. The old belt driven Cincinnati vertical mills reeked of the Industrial Age and the smell of machine oil flowing and smoking on the cutting bits was embedded in my sense memory as powerfully as the incense of a High Mass.

I also remember my visits to the backroom of the Downey-based newspaper printshop that turned out our once a month high school paper, as well as the indulgence of the grizzled linotype operator who patiently accepted my revised editorials even as he was setting the hot molten lead. These may be personal reminiscences from a half-century ago but the Arion Press exists today and it has weekly Thursday tours. Hoyem invites you to venture back into this all but lost world. I was lucky enough to have a personal tour from him shortly after I became a subscriber. Next time you are in San Francisco, go there. Take your son or daughter. It is living history, its rooms vibrantly alive with interns and apprentices who, hopefully, will continue the traditions. If you want to know more about Arion Press tours: tours link

And here, most recent one first, is a catalogue of their complete eighty-eight volumes. Many are on display in a presentation room of their offices. catalog link

If this screed has whetted your desire to jump right into Moby Dick and you just can’t wait, here is the Kindle edition, an instant download, marked down to $0.99. I don’t think Herman Melville would mind, like all authors, happy to have readers. Moby Dick's publication was another in a chain of disappointments for its author who soon became a customs inspector in lower Manhattan. Like Citizen Kane, its canonic status was only assured by a later generation.—Moby Dick or the Whale (mobi) Kindle edition link

The “E-Moby Dick”


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