April 6, 2017
Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, by Merilyn Simonds
Even if I wasn’t scheduled to be on a panel with Merilyn Simonds in Hamilton this weekend talking about digital storytelling (but I am! It’s gritLIT and you can buy tickets here. Tickets are also still available for my blogging workshop!) I would have picked up her new book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, in a heartbeat. Because it’s a beautiful hardcover book about books whose endpapers are to die for. And the story itself is a magnificent hybrid of memoir and non-fiction (“Did you know”, I kept imploring everybody who would listen, “that the invention of the spinning loom would lead to a surfeit of rags, which would help bring about a revolution in the production of paper? What a wondrous thing is that. How can you go about as a bookish person in the world without know that fact?”) about Simonds’ experience producing a book via old-fashioned letterpress while at the same time rendering a digital version.
This is not a book that bridges the digital/print divide, but instead a book that asserts that there is no such thing. Simonds was an early adopter of e-reading technologies and is savvy about and grateful for the possibilities these hold for writers and readers and alike, but she also knows that it’s not reason to throw the baby out with the library. “Why is it that we assume each new thing condemns what went before as obsolete? We know that’s not true. We can read a book, stream a Netflix movie, then listen to the radio as we drive to the opera, read a precis of the narrative on our iPads as we wait for a performance to begin./ We can have it all.”
I wrote all over this book, underlinings and paragraphs bracketed. It articulated so much of what I know as a booklover, and what I’ve learned in the last few months as I’ve become an author: “I’m just the writer. I used to think that was important, that the entire scaffolding of the publishing world was built on the foundation of the written word. Now that I am deep inside this architecture, I see that I’m just another two-by-four, doing my bit to keep the entire edifice from collapsing in a heap.”
Simonds takes her reader through the process of producing a book of short pieces for a small press in Kingston run by the inimitable Hugh Barclay. Along with the story of her own relationship to print, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is about Barclay’s career as an “innovator” and how he found his way into a job designing wheelchairs and how that led to his ownership of a printing press and the advent of Thee Hellbox Press—sounds inevitable, right? The book is divided five main sections—Paper, Type, Ink, Press and Book—and Simonds outlines her experience at each stage of the process, along with fascinating historical context—like how rags led to paper, or how Koreans had come shockingly close to creating moveable type but the complexity of their alphabet kept them from doing so, or how books weren’t stood up on a shelf as we know them before the 1700s and instead lay on their sides with pages facing and the owner would write the title of the book on the page-side.
These rich details are what propels the plot forward, as does Simonds’ evident passion for the entire project and books in general, and, ultimately, the production of her book with Hugh. At the same time, she is busy creating a digital version of the book with her son, a designer, who is also tasked with creating the woodcuts for the print edition (and he has to create small icons of these for the e-book, because the technology doesn’t allow the prints to appear as shadows beneath the text the way that they can on paper). Learning about the ins and outs of the processes, print and digital, the ways in which they are similar and different, complementary and wholly foreign, was so illuminating.
For me, this book never misses a mark, which makes my favourite part of it seem a bit ironic. When Merilyn discovers a fingerprint faintly smudged on a corner of a page from her book, and worries they might have to go back a step in a slow and tedious process. But Hugh shrugs off her concern: “We’re not striving for perfection here. That fingerprint—that’s what makes this copy distinct. Human. It says, ‘Somebody printed this.'” Which is kind of the whole point.