Friday, December 16, 2011

Thereby Hangs a Quote, and a New, Must-Read Book on Books

by Stephen J. Gertz

When poet, master printer, and Perishable Press publisher Walter Hamady casually mentioned to master printer and Poltroon Press publisher Alastair M. Johnston, Peter Glassgold's book, Hwaett!,  Johnston, without skipping a beat, interjected:

"From Anglo-Saxon. It's the first word of Beowulf."

I have no idea whether Johnston, with whom I am acquainted, had been waiting decades for the opportunity to slip that factoid into a conversation but he did and I'm impressed.

As I am by the new word for today,  "slobagoody," which Hamady uses to describe a slapdash, thrown together, gallimaufry of text, later turned into readable narrative prose.

Hwaett and slobagoody (attorneys-at-law?) appear in Hanging Quotes: Talking Books Arts, Typography & Poetry, a new book by Johnson from Cuneiform Press. It's a keeper.

It's easy to be impressed with all of Hanging Quotes, a series of conversations Johnston had with book and printing people Nicholas Barker; Robert Creeley; Matthew Carter; Sumner Stone; Fred Smeijers; Joan and Nathan Lyons; Sandra Kirshenbaum; Dave Haselwood; Holbrook Teter of Zephyrus Image Press; Bob Hawley (Oyez Press); poet David Meltzer; and Graham Mackintosh, that widely ranges through the world of books, printing, and the visual manifestation of poetry in print.

More than impressed, you'll enjoy the book. Johnston, and his partner in Poltroon Press, Frances Butler, seem to ask just the right questions and pursue the right leads, tapping into their subject's interests, taking the conversation into unexpected places, and allowing it to take delightful turns.  Fascinating anecdotes, details, stories from book and printing history, unusual factoids, and captivating digressions are the reward.

You can read the interview with Nicholas Barker, renowned bookman, author, and editor of The Book Collector, for instance, and feel satisfied with the book without reading further (though you'll be sorry if you stop there). In this interview, which, as all the others in Hanging Quotes, is kaleidoscopic and delightfully all other the place, you'll learn about:

Trade secrets of medieval book illuminators, the private press movement and Barker's welcome apostasy ("Who the hell reads Kelmscott Press books?"), the degradation of paper quality, the improvement in ink, bookshop merchandizing, the importance of visual detail and symbolism and how the ability to read images has decayed, the importance of the shape of letters as a map of the human mind, Congolese bards, calligraphy, copperplate engraving and the personality of the engraver, Victorian typography, Goudy, Gill, Dwiggins, Morison, the importance of curve, and the current state of "Jine" printing.

Did I mention that Johnston, Butler, and those they interview are often quite amusing? This is not an academic book. It's absorbing, engaging,  informative, and highly entertaining; a wish-you-were-there read. You will not get a headache. But if you have one before reading it, Hanging Quotes may do more good than Advil.

You know you're in for a good time when the book opens with these quotes: 

"Tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre" (Everything in the world exists to produce a book - Stéphane Mallarmé)


"Talk is cheap, but a Flair pen costs 69 cents" (Darrell Gray).

I'm still in the book, around three-quarters through it, and am hooked. This, despite a rare, interesting, and heretofore unexplored phenomenon associated with the topography of a book and reading that I experienced with my review copy, which arrived water-soaked in an unlined envelope during a recent  storm. After allowing it to dry I found myself hanging ten while reading Hanging Quotes, surfing the text block, which had more waves than Waimea, up and down, up and down. To all appearances my head was bobbing to music only I could hear.

It's unlikely that you'll experience motion sickness while reading Hanging Quotes, though you'll likely feel pleasantly lightheaded after reading what are simply amongst the best, most engrossing and enchanting interviews we bookpeople will ever be treated to.

I have a good news/bad news fantasy that I'm a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I reach the million dollar round. The million dollar question is, What's the first word in Beowulf?, the ultimate  Trivial Pursuit question from the, alas, never-issued Bibliomaniac Edition. I mentally spend all the money. But I have to correctly pronounce the answer I just happen to know only because I read Hanging Quotes. Yet I didn't put Alastair Johnston on my Friends list; I can't call him.  Preceded by an "Oh" I utter an Anglo-Saxon word I can pronounce.

"Is that your final answer?"

I kiss that windfall goodbye.

JOHNSTON, Alastair M. Hanging Quotes. Talking Book Arts, Typography, and Poetry. [Victoria, TX]: Cuneiform Press, 2011. First edition. Large octavo. 270 pp. Illustrated wrappers. $22.00. Order here to support a small press publisher and allow them to make a decent profit without Jeff Bezos unmercifully squeezing their...uh, margin in the name of public service.

Full disclosure:

Alastair M. Johnston designed the print edition of A Wake for the Still Alive, Booktryst's series from last year. He's a friend but I have no idea what the "M" stands for; it's news to me. I'm hoping, Murgatroid.

Kyle Schlesinger, publisher of Cuneiform Press, along with his associate, Wm. S. Burroughs aficionado Jed Birmingham, is a friend of ours through Mimeo Mimeo, their publication (and website) devoted to the mimeograph revolution and grass-roots printing. Read Booktryst's O Solé Mimeo here.

1 comment:

  1. so put me on your friends list, Stephen. I have a head full of trivial information if you need it!


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