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2001-03, 329, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Fine Editions

Book Review

Megan L Benton, Beauty and the Book: Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000. xii, 323. ISBN 0-300-08213-4.

Professor Megan L. Benton of the Pacific Lutheran University in the USA has taken as her topic the boom in fine print editions in the USA in the fifteen years after World War One. These books were valued primarily, as Benton indicates, for their beauty, craftsmanship, extravagance, status or scarcity. The boom in fine printing was perhaps exemplified in physical form by the Grab-horn edition in 1930 of Walt Whitman‟s Leaves of Grass, which was produced as a large folio, typeset by hand, letter press printed on handmade paper with many hand-carved, woodcut decorations and bound in mahogany boards. Before the book was published nearly 2000 people had tried to subscribe to one of the 400 copies.

Other factors for this boom emerge in a wider cultural sense. Acquisition symbolised cultural supremacy while implicitly decry-ing the rise of mass culture. Many of the publications were not only collected for their beauty but also as an investment source. The 1929 Depression obviously impacted upon the trend to pur-chase bibliophilic rarities. Their production was also affected by new mass production trends in general publishing and also the cheaper but still high value productions of the Limited Editions Club, which began publishing in 1929.

Benton’s research is based on her analysis of 300 titles pub-lished between 1921 and 1932. She describes the activities of some of the major names involved in the creative explosion such as Frederic Warde, Daniel Updike, Carl Rowlins and Ed Grab-horn. Perceptive vignettes include Beatrice Warde, who left her husband to work with Stanley Morrison.

Benton describes Warde‟s address to the Company of Station-ers in 1928 when she was dressed in black chiffon embellished by black crystal beads and orchids on her shoulder. This must have been something to observe in the traditional male preserve of the Stationers Company. Warde observed her dress “makes me look like Greta Garbo” and her speech was short “for all they’ll hear of it while they‟re feasting their eyes”. This vignette perhaps encap-sulates the whole movement incorporating elegance, fashion, scholarship and salesmanship.

As we once more ponder the future of the book in the plethora of e-book initiatives, several of which are doomed to failure, it is reassuring that a fine press movement is still flourishing globally and reminds us of a previous era‟s publication and collecting in a fascinating and well priced book.

Colin Steele

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