Week 4: Chapters 9 and 10

‘Classic.” A book which people praise and don’t read.” — Mark Twain (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mark_twain_5.html) (“But if it’s a Kelmscott edition, they can enjoy looking at it.” –OG)

This week we read about “Graphic Design and the Industrial Revolution” in Chapter 9, including a visit to the Victorian era and considerable details about the vagaries of typographic design. We also studied “The Arts and Crafts Movement and Its Heritage” in Chapter 10, a chapter which emphasized book design. For the first time, I appreciated the artistic design of our textbook. In this class, we first concentrated on the many images presented in our text, then began trying to unravel the huge ball of detailed written information. Studying our book’s illustrations and the histories of modern book design this week, I finally realized that our text is more than just a text. It is a gestalt of illustration, information, typography, layout and printing. Looking at a modern book as a piece of art/craft is an interesting but disturbing experience. I would love to see a Morris edition of Chaucer, but would the beauty of the object detract from my concentration on the work itself?

One continuing theme in all of our readings is the necessity to swim with the current or drown. Job security as a trained scribe was doomed by the proliferation of the printing press (although calligraphy is practiced to this day). Scribes tried to hold back the tide with legal action that cried “unfair competition” to no avail. Each successive improvement in printing techniques resulted in the uprooting of workers who had mastered a skill that was rendered obsolete. Workers would protest or sabotage or even riot, but progress continued. Some clever designers, such as Howard Pyle, changed with the changing times. Pyle began illustrating with pen and ink and moved on to half-tone illustrations, then two-color and full-color illustrations. (See Meggs, page 172.) Those craftsmen who couldn’t or wouldn’t learn new skills faded from the graphic scene.

Skills never seem to completely vanish, however. The Arts and Crafts Movement deplored the poor quality that printed materials eventually fell into. For instance, Kelmscott Press brought master craftsman Hooper out of retirement to contribute to the production of exquisite hand-pressed books. (Meggs, page 183.) Progress in modern printing technology continued to accelerate, but even the professions of lithographers or wood block cutters or inkers could no longer employ thousands of people, appreciation for the products of methods that were no longer economically viable did not totally disappear.

Design and technology are now entering a new era with the proliferation of virtual communication. Publishing houses are tightening their belts or closing, just as lithography houses once did. Printed newspapers are slowly becoming obsolete, just as tablets, scrolls, and broadsides once did. This week, a 7-inch iPad was introduced; Kindle continues to gain popularity; Google Books offers many publications online. Our book has amply illustrated so far that people employed in traditional publications need to look ahead and develop new skills to suit the new technologies. But just as books as works of art were still appreciated after modern printing methods were established, I believe that published materials as a tactile experience will always still be appreciated and never disappear entirely. There is hope still for bibliophiles. To quote a recent NPR program: “One reader in particular told us that when he has a book that he loves, he wants to be able to access it in any format. So with the Harry Potter series and the [Song of Ice and Fire] series, he’s actually bought all of those books as print books and as e-books, just because they matter that much to him …” (http://www.npr.org/2012/10/23/163414069/americas-facebook-generation-is-reading-strong)

This week, it seems that studying history is a bit like gazing into a hazy crystal ball to determine the future.


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