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Of the Making of Books

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

The Golden Book; the Story of Fine Books and Bookmaking—Past and Present. By Douglas Crawford McMurtrie. Chicago: Pascal Covici. $6.00.

Of the making of books there have been many beginnings. In this publication, conceived by Pascal Covici, Douglas Crawford McMurtrie has undertaken to tell the whole story for all readers.

The author’s much reading hath made this a full book. The volume starts with hieroglyphics and the origin of the alphabet, with monumental inscriptions, wax tablets, and Ts’ai Lun’s invention of paper, with the Send inscription and the Diamond Sutra, and with all the industrial antecedents of European printing. It runs the full course through the nearly completed five centuries of Western printed books from Gutenberg and Coster, through the incunabula and the “Golden Age” (lucid and interesting chapters these), clear to William Morris, Cobden-Sanderson, and Bruce Rogers. Then, exercising the viewpoint of a designer and printer, it retraces its steps over the details of bookmaking. Finally it pauses to peer hopefully and prophetically into the future.

It is a long but lively story, and the results of recent researches have supplied Mr. McMurtrie with fresh material. For China’s contribution he naturally, depends on the work of the late Thomas F. Carter—”The Invention of Printing in China and its Spread Westward”—which appeared oniy three years ago. Professor Carter made known to the West the ancient records of the achievements of China and to the East the chapters preserved in European archives—and had he quite succeeded in his scholarly effort to make the twain meet, some famous statues in Strasbourg and Mainz might have been degraded to objects of curiosity. In the chapter on Mexico Mr. McMurtrie has drawn from his own fruitful investigations to add new interest to the tale of the earliest printing in the New World. And a hitherto unpublished letter by Isaiah Thomas, the founder ’ of the American Antiquarian Society, gives a tense account of the vicissitudes of printing in 1775 in Massachusetts.

This, then, is another entry into the bibliothecal Marathons of our day— of world histories in one volume, which he who runs may read. Technical language is avoided or skillfully translated. The chapter headings are sufficient illustrations of the popular tone:—”Paper and its Forbears”; “The Stage Setting for Typography”; “The Press Comes to Massachusetts”; “The Precocious Apprentice”; “A Typographical Messiah.” Occasionally one seems to detect suggestions of the nervous attitude of a lecturer harassed by too much material. But this lecturer has the stamina of enthusiasm in his subject.

The publisher, Pascal Covici, has collaborated to make this a fine, though a bit over-bulky, example of bookmak-ing. The cover design is an effective Maioli pattern. The volume is printed in Caslon as interpreted on the linotype. The initial letters and running heads are varied to correspond with the styles considered in the chapters which they introduce. The illustrations are unusually well chosen and are unusually successful in illustrating the text. It would be ungracious to inject a petty record of typographical slips into a review of “The Golden Book” did not such slips become particularly noticeable in an undertaking of this character. The phrase “on this latter” on page 68 should obviously be “on this last.” On page 84 “discuss” trips the reader by emerging as “discsus.” On page 225 the date “1539” hurdles the line. Professor Pelliot’s name is correctly spelled on page 54 but incorrectly on page 403. And on page 390 the late Professor Carter appears both as Francis H. and as Thomas F., the latter being the proper form.

Indeed “The Golden Book” is a somewhat ambiguous title. This is not that desirable object, however much author and publisher and purchaser might wish that it were. Nor does Mr. McMurtrie intend to make such a claim. The heading of his final chapter, “Towards the Golden Book,” indicates his meaning of the title. In this respect his purpose is akin to that of William Dana Orcutt in his recent and charming work, “In Quest of the Perfect Book.” The appearance of such volumes as these, histories of old beginnings but seeming to reveal a new beginning towards better books, not de luxe but for all readers, is most encouraging. Our best-selling day appears to be awakening to the possibility that beauty may be worth while even in books and cottages and Fords.


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