19 September 2012

Love and The Mess We`re In

A page opening from Love and the Mess We’re In

The Globe & Mail’s John Barber was kind enough to give some ink (yes the Globe & Mail still uses ink) to Gaspereau’s new book by Stephen Marche, Love and the Mess We’re In. In the quotes he selects from his interview with Marche and in the way he frames his article, Barber implies that Marche and I are spearheading some astonishingly retrograde, rearguard action in support of a dying art form. I guess if you have to dress it all up like that to sneak a story about a small-town press into the national newspaper, fill your boots. But the reality is not quite so dramatic.

Despite all that has been written about the death of the book, the truth is that it hasn’t gone anywhere and is unlikely to do so for sometime yet. There were lots of other publishers who released nice-looking, well designed trade books this fall, books on which much care and attention was lavished. They were released by a range of firms, big and small. Most of them were not produced by nutty zealots or commercially-indifferent artisans. They were released by people like me, people who care about books and make a living publishing for the trade market.

Sure, the trade has seen some interesting shifts toward ebooks in commercial and genre fiction (all that pleasurable snack-reading for planes and subways), but for readers of Canadian literature, the trend has been less significant so far. No surprise, paper still dominates. Any student of history will tell you that the transition from the manuscript book to the mass-produced printed book was no different – slow and gradual – and that a viable commercial trade in manuscript books carried on parallel with the flashy new printing trade for several generations after moveable type took Europe by storm in the late fifteenth century. A mere few years into the Kindle and iPad is simply too early to announce the collapse of a half-millennium of the printed book, or to portray as a novelty authors like Marche who still think the printed book is a relevant and robust form of expression.

She thinks / She says / He says / He thinks

And of course you can read this text on a screen. I designed the damn thing by looking at a screen and moving electronic representations of type and lines around with a keyboard and a mouse, so it certainly can be accessed and understood in that medium. It’s not for sale in an electronic format at this point, but that’s not to say that it can’t or won’t be. However, as Marche hints at in his expressions of bibliophilia in the Globe & Mail article, an electronic picture of book pages is not the same thing as a book. They cannot and should not be equated. They can both convey the text, but the experience (and perhaps the implications) of using them is quite different. When Marche wrote this novel, and when I designed it, it was the physical codex format of the book and the characteristics of its pages which we had in mind. For us, the paper book is the ultimate expression of this creative activity. But we could certainly translate it into other media, and you could certainly read/view/hear it with similar satisfaction if you were at all at home with those other media.

I don’t want to poke at Barber, whose genuine interest in (and occasional puzzlement about) Gaspereau’s vision of contemporary book publishing I sincerely appreciate. He’s doing his job, looking for a story angle that will draw in the readers; that in turn helps me sell more books. But when he calls what we do “archaic,” “old-fashioned,” and “artisinal” I think he may be both misunderstanding the nature of tools (the hammer, the knife and the screwdriver are old tools too, though we make wholly relevant, contemporary things with them and no robotic equivalent will ever completely eliminate them) and diverting the focus away from the place it belongs: the text. No one should buy this book because it is beautiful or unusually made. They should buy it to read it. At Gaspereau Press, beauty and utility come at no extra charge.

At one point in Marche’s novel, the narrative is expressed in the form of a re-imagined New York City subway map which is printed in colour and tipped into each book.


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