Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau, Sharp Teeth Press (2012)

Sharp Teeth Press, the imprint of David Johnston, is a new, small bay area letterpress and hot metal outfit dedicated to producing fine books by hand through the entire process, from casting lead type to hand binding. They plan to publish mostly nonfiction, first edition texts. Plans are also in place for publishing an early short story by Kurt Vonnegut with Jesse Balmer illustrating. Look for it later this year.

Mr. Johnston grew up in a small farming town in eastern Washington state and was introduced to book arts and printing through Jessica Spring of Springtide Press at Pacific Lutheran University. It was Ms. Spring who suggested that he apply for the typefoundry apprenticeship at M & H Type, which led to Mr. Johnston working at M & H Type and the Arion Press.  Mr. Johnston’s current studio is located inside of an enormous warehouse with a diverse group of artists, craftspeople, and ‘burning man’ people.

I was thrilled to see that Sharp Teeth Press was publishing Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau, as it is one of my all-time favorite works. Henry David Thoreau is the quintessential American writer whose writing perfectly reflects the soul of 19th century America, especially its spirit of individualism, self-reliance and belief in limited government.  His most famous works include A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849), Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience (1849), and Walden (1854). His influence on later writers, thinkers and philosophers is enormous. Thoreau was a leading transcendentalist, an active abolitionist, and a dedicated naturalist, who, unlike most who talk the talk but do not walk the walk, strove to live in a manner reflecting his principles, regardless of inconvenience (including that of being jailed for tax resistance in opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War).

Thoreau is embraced by both the right (due to his strong belief in limited government, self-reliance and free trade) and left (due to his naturalism, views on civil disobedience, and his belief in a simple lifestyle that would certainly see him opposed to the mass consumerism of today). It is unfortunate that his views, which also include a disdain for technological utopianism and mass entertainment, a strong opposition to our treatment of Native Americans, and for protection of animals and wild areas, are not more prevalent in a single philosophy or political party today. While the left agrees with many of his views, they immediately turn to government for answers and dictates, which he would steadfastly be opposed to. While the right agrees with many of his views, they ignore his views on big business, consumerism, technology and nature. Oh for a Thoreau party, that gets it all right!

Thoreau’s writing concerning his beliefs is almost lyrical and is certainly persuasive, as in these passages concerning his views on government.

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically…Government is at best an expedient; but  most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient…The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it.

Or

Yet this government never of itself furthered any enterprise, but by the alacrity with which it got out of its way. It does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate. The character inherent in the American people has done all that has been accomplished; and it would have done somewhat more, if the government had not sometimes gotten in the way.

Or

…if one were to judge these men (ed: politicians) wholly be the effects of their actions and not partly by their intentions, they would deserve to be classed and punished with those mischievous persons who put obstructions on the railroads.

Since I used the above quotes, it should be notes that Thoreau is not an anarchist, saying specifically that “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government.”

Regardless of left or right, what Thoreau tells us in Civil Disobedience is that we must not abdicate our consciences to government, that we have an absolute duty to not acquiescence to injustice done in our name. It is not enough to be against such, one must take action to not allow such. He cites the thousands opposed to slavery in principle, but who did nothing about it, and in fact allowed themselves to benefit because of it. He is clear that law itself does not make a right; “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right… Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.”  While the constitutional response to an unjust law may be for people to use the political process to ultimately change the law, Thoreau believed that unless the lawmaking process quickly obliterates such unjust laws, then the law deserves no respect and it should be broken. Yes, the government will retaliate, but that is just another reason why living simply is best, as then you have less to lose and are more apt to follow your principles.

Mr. Johnston explains his interest in Thoreau and Civil Disobedience:

Thoreau’s text challenging the leaders of his young country is no less important or relevant in 2013 than when it was first published in 1849. His writing compels us to challenge our leaders’ morals and ethics in a nonviolent manner by hitting them where they feel it most — their pocketbooks. Thoreau’s words will be read throughout the remainder of history, and this deluxe edition allows and encourages the reader to savor his ingenious methods of protest. His voice and defiance deserve the utmost respect, and have so been treated with this handmade volume.

The essay has been printed on dampened Rives BFK paper, in Monotype Italian Old Style, using a foot-treadeled Chandler and Price letterpress in two colors, and includes artwork by illustrator Nate Van Dyke.  It is bound with a spine in brown cow leather with side boards covered in hand-made paper by Porridge Paper Co. There is a special edition, limited to ten copies, quarter bound in pig leather and including a full sized letterpressed portrait of Henry David Thoreau by Nate Van Dyke (who also signs it). I encourage Books and Vines readers to contact Mr. Johnston, order a copy of this nicely done hand-made book; read it and contemplate your role in what is just and what is not just in society today.

About the Edition

  • Artwork by San Francisco based artist, Nate Van Dyke
  • Set in Monotype Italian Old Style
  • Printed on dampened Rives BFK paper using a foot-treadeled Chandler and Price letterpress in two colors
  • Cast, printed and hand-bound by the press
  • Boards covered in hand-made paper by Porridge Paper Co.
  • Spine covered in brown cow leather
  • 32 pages, Edition of 150, signed by Nate Van Dyke
  • There is a special edition of Civil Disobedience which includes a full sized letterpressed portrait of Henry David Thoreau by Nate Van Dyke and is signed by the artist
    • The edition is only 10 prints, with 5 Artist Proofs and 3 Printers Proofs
    • The special edition copy of the book is quarter bound in pig leather, and is also signed by the artist

Pictures of the Edition

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Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Cover
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Cover
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Cover and Spine
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Cover and Spine
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Cover
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Cover
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Spine
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Spine
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Side View
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Side View
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Title Page
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Title Page
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Watermark
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Watermark
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Illustration and Text
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Illustration #1 and Text
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Text
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Text
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Sample Text Page #1
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Sample Text Page #1
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Sample Text Pages #2
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Sample Text Pages #2
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Illustration #2 with Text
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Illustration #2 with Text
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Sample Text #3 with Decoration
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Sample Text #3 with Decoration
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Colophon
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Colophon
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Colophon
Civil Disobedience, Sharp Teeth Press, Macro of Colophon

8 thoughts on “Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau, Sharp Teeth Press (2012)

  1. Lovely! I ordered a copy via the Sharp Teeth Press website.
    Also, by the way, my thanks for introducing us to the Incline Press and Celtic Cross Press — I’ve purchased a couple of books from them as well.
    It’s a pleasure to be able to support such fine work at such reasonable prices.

  2. Blast you! Another blow to the bank balance! Thank goodness that ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth’ is sold out! Michael

  3. What an auspicious debut for a small fledgling press. Perfect in all aspects —- flawless typography, beautiful book design, topnotch materials, and as Chris noted, a timeless literary work. Home run!

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