15 May 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Last summer, for the first time in years, I published a large edition of handmade hardcover books.

Through the struggle of making each book the best I could, I became acutely aware that each editioned book was in fact unique. One-of-a-kind. A hand-printed book, a hand-bound one: each sheet cut by hand, sent through the Risograph and the Vandercook multiple times, folded by hand, hand collated; text blocks glued by hand, trimmed by hand; boards cut by hand; covers wrapped by hand; spine pieces cut by hand, foil-stamped by hand. So many opportunities for difference.

This process, this practice, is of repetition: a study. One hundred opportunities to get it right, this time, finally: but never. Always a different book. At first I was acutely, achingly aware of my failures. In early summer, I lay awake at night, poring over them. But then, gradually, I began to realize that these imperfections were embedded in the process of a part-time publisher producing an edition by hand by herself: as designer, typesetter, printer, self-taught binder, publisher: so many opportunities, I began to think, not for error but for difference, for learning, for engagement of the hand and the mind.

In his book The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi writes that the “art of imperfection” is a natural result of the craft process. He wrote that the completely precise “carries no overtones” — “everything is apparent from the start.” But, like any other handcraft, making books by hand is a process with many steps: “there is always a little something unaccounted for.” “Slight irregularities come by chance, and not by any deliberation.”

Of course Ruskin cited printing as the first industrial process: printing was not a handcraft but an industrial one, with “copies” instead of one-offs, one right after another. Books produced by master printers and binders also are testaments to the attainment of apparent perfection — whether they also feel the same as I, all too aware of the inconsistencies, I do not know. Perhaps they do, too. Or perhaps those most practiced and committed to their craft take the stance of David Pye in The Nature and Art of Workmanship: the craftsmanship of risk. In each moment, an opportunity to ruin all the work that came before. But with this mindset, how do you think of the finished piece? Is it the inevitable culmination of the process? Is it a struggle for unobtainable perfection? Is it both these things at the same time?

Each process has developed its own relationship to the idea of perfection, as each maker must. While traditional letterpress printers cultivate and revere consistency and strive to pull each print exactly the same, in Riso printing the opposite is embraced. Risograph printers proclaim that prints will have wheel track marks, registration will be imperfect, the ink will never truly dry and will always smudge: and these are all to be embraced as defining characteristics of the medium. So you could say it is embedded in the processes that made them that no two of my 100 books, with Riso as well as letterpress printed pages, will be exactly alike.

What I came to realize, for me, in making the books one after another over the course of a very hot summer: absolute uniformity was not my goal. It could not be. It was a miserable goal, chasing after an impossible future instead of being in the present moment, each moment, allowing the hands to coax the materials into a book, the mind both here and freed by the hands to ponder other possibilities. It was this strange double-mind I maintained while editioning: making the book the best I could, one at a time, one right after another, adapting steps, changing tactics, trying new strategies: but simultaneously letting go of the slight variations that were inevitable. My goal had to be the immersion in process, in each step, of letting the hands learn and remember, creating their own knowledge separate from the mind: living the freedom and richness. “All that there is, is the Eternal Now” Yanagi wrote. That is what making books by hand is for me.

This is not to say that I did not have certain standards of workmanship: a threshold of acceptability. I combed over all of the prints to select the best ones for the book. I ripped the spine off some covers, remade them. I threw out spine pieces cut off square, or poorly foil stamped. I took care in making each book, this book, and this one, and this one, the best that I could, in the moment. And after the moment, I stopped fixating on the gap between my best and perfection.

So far, number 14 is still my favorite. I clipped the corner of the cover paper too close to the back-cover’s board, the miter exposing some bookboard beneath. I cut a tiny triangle off the clipped-off corner and pasted it down on the board to conceal my mistake. But during steps where other copies commonly gave me trouble, this book slipped by with grace. It is the copy I am keeping for myself.


  • 23 May 2017 3:47 AM | Anonymous
    Made me think of John Donne.
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  • 15 Mar 2019 1:06 PM | Kelda Martensen
    I have come back to this post several times, and now again as I am preparing for my spring quarter teaching book arts to a new group of students. I wonder each project, each class, each quarter, each year, how to make failure a meaningful step/process/journey for students, how do we both light the fire and push them to strive for an edition and hone the skills necessary when aiming for consistency, but simultaneously give them room to know how to relish the variance, how to know when the collaboration with material goes its own way. Thank you for this Emily - such lovely thoughts to ponder.
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