The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles Finney, Janus Press (1984); Also, The Limited Editions Club edition (1982)

One would think, having lived in Arizona for 43 years, that I would be more familiar with Charles G. Finney‘s modern classic The Circus of Dr. Lao which takes place in a fictional small town in Arizona named Abalone. Alas, I have never read it. I intended to do so prior to writing this article, but I remain buried in higher priority reading. None-the-less, the fine press editions of this work are worth highlighting, so I decided not to delay.

Finney (1905-1984) won the ‘Most Original Book’ of 1935 in the inaugural National Book Awards with The Circus of Dr. Lao. The Monthly Letter (ML) of the Limited Editions Club tells about Finney’s “humorous mingling of brashness and pest, his fusing of the real and the unreal, and his irreverent attitude toward what he considers to be the madness of the cosmos.” Wikipedia tell us that Finney has theinhabitants epitomize ordinary Americans as they are simultaneously backhandedly celebrated and lovingly pilloried for their emergent reactions to the wonders of magic and of everyday life.Sounds promising to me, someday I really must get to it! This is especially so since there are two excellent fine press editions of this work, both centered around the many talents of Claire Van Vliet.

Claire Van Vliet is an artist, illustrator and typographer best known for her Janus Press, one of the great American fine presses of the twentieth century. Since 1956, Janus Press has produced over one hundred fine press books, often collaborations with contemporary writers, papermakers, printmakers and artists. A while back, Books and Vines took a look at her fantastic King Lear from 1986. In that article, dlphcoracl tells us:

The Janus Press books are distinctive and Van Vliet has been a pioneer in unusual and innovative book design and construction.  Many of the books are three-dimensional, with fold-outs, pop-ups, weaving, folding and atypical use of different materials, all done to enhance the reading experience.  Others feature an extraordinary range of color which may require putting a sheet of paper on the press multiple times to apply layer after layer of color. “I want the physicality of the book to create a physical message through the hands and eyes that makes the reader more susceptible to the text.”   Despite the physical demands of lifting heavy type cases and operate a hand-powered letterpress, books are still printed one page at a time, usually on a Vandercook press.  For larger and more elaborate books, Van Vliet works with a variety of local craftspeople in New England who will design and set the type, provide hand made paper to specification, bookbinding,  and construction of slipcases.

Dlphcoracl goes on to point out that Ms. Van Vliet’s pioneering and innovative work in book design was recognized in 1989 with a  prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Prize (the so-called “Genius grant”). Janus Press has published works from esteemed literary figures such as Franz KafkaSeamus HeaneyTed HughesJohn le Carré and Denise Levertov, as well as many authors and poets who are much less well known (Ms. Van Vliet has stated that she seeks out works that lend themselves to her innovative book designs, works that are especially enhanced by her creative approach to book design and bookmaking). Janus Press books are collected by libraries, museums, the National Library of Congress and many others.

The Janus Press Edition

The Circus of Doctor Lao, the 75th publication of Janus Press, is the most famous and sought after of her works, at least by private collectors (with Aura and King Lear close by). The book was recognized in the classic Grolier Club publication ‘A Century for the Century, Fine Printed Books From 1900-1999‘ in which 100 of the most beautiful and influential publications of the twentieth century are discussed and illustrated. A Century for the Century tells us that “the presswork on both type and relief prints is faultless; the paper is sensuous, rough, toned…the result is considered by many to be her masterpiece.” Claire Van Vliet’s illustrations originally appeared in the 1982 Limited Editions Club (LEC) version of this work which you will see at the bottom of this article; nice as that edition is, the edition from Janus Press is better in pretty much every way (and in turn, also in a different league in terms of price!).

The Janus Press edition contains more than forty relief prints, mostly etchings many of which combined with pochoir. In addition, there are geometric typographic ornaments throughout (as you will see in the photographs below). The type of Monotype Plantin, composed at The Stinehour Press, looks marvelous on the Barcham Green De Wint paper, which certainly is “sensuous, rough, toned”. The combination of fabulous materials, meticulous hand craftsmanship and color everywhere make this one of my favorite productions in my library. I had sought the Janus Press edition of this title for years, but cost and condition often frustrated me. An opportunity came up to buy an unbound copy at a price at which I jumped at. Once received, I worked with Starr Bookworks in Arizona (I have highlighted their excellent work many times) to design a binding, starting with a blank palate. You will see below that we choose to bind in full Nigerian goat-skin, with a Nigerian goat-skin insert of a circus tent taken from one of Claire Van Vliet’s illustrations, along with a title banner also taken directly from an illustration in the book. The spine was done in a classic, and in my mind, stunning fashion. The work is then placed in a in custom felt-lined cloth slipcase with gold-stamped label.

About the Edition (Janus Press)

  • Illustrated by Claire Van Vliet with forty relief prints, mainly etchings, many combined with stencil (pochoir)
  • Geometric typographic ornaments throughout
  • Monotype Plantin composed at The Stinehour Press and revised by Barbara Luck
  • Graffiti supplied by Stephen Harvard
  • Text printed with Susan Johanknecht and the plates with Tamara Schumann
  • Printed on Barcham Green De Wint
  • Custom bound in full Nigerian Goatskin with design imprinted based on illustration by Claire Van Vliet and with gold-stamped titling on spine, in custom felt-lined cloth slipcase with gold-stamped label (note, normally the book came bound in Johanna Western natural buckram covers, Johanna Western rust Kennet cloth sides, and lined in pale gre-violet Japanese twill, pictures of which follow below)
  • Custom mould-made end paper hand-marbled by Katherine Radcliffe
  • 10 1/4″ x 13 1/4″
  • Limited to 150 copies, signed by Charles Finney and Claire Van Vliet

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Custom Slipcase
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Custom Slipcase
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Book in Slipcase
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Book in Slipcase
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of Spine
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of Spine
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Cover (Custom Binding)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Cover (Custom Binding)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of Cover (Custom Binding)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of Cover (Custom Binding)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Hand-marbled endpapers (custom)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Hand-marbled endpapers (custom)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of hand-marbled endpapers (custom)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of hand-marbled endpapers (custom)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Macro of text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #2 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #2 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Text #1
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Text #1
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustrations #3 with text (fold out)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustrations #3 with text (fold out)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #5 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #4 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #9 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Illustration #5 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Text #2
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Text #2
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Text #3
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Sample Text #3
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Colophon
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Colophon
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Original Clamshell Box
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Original Clamshell Box
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Original Cover in Clam Shell Box
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Original Cover in Clamshell Box
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Original Spine and Box
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Janus Press, Original Spine and Box

The Limited Editions Club version of 1982

The 1982 Limited Editions Club version of this work is the precursor to the Janus Press edition, sharing most attributes (font type, illustrations, general format, etc.), as one would expect since both are the creation of Claire Van Vliet. However, the 1984 Janus Press edition spares no expense in making it a tour de force of fine press publication; it is larger, with nicer paper, nicer illustration presentation (thanks to pochoir and scale) and a much smaller limitation (150 versus 2000). In addition, Charles Finney signs the Janus Press edition. The result being that the Janus Press edition will likely set you back more than $5000 in fine condition, whereas the LEC can be found fine for around $100! Having said that, for those unwilling to spend thousands of dollars on this title, the LEC is an extremely nice edition to have. The quality certainly demands more than the cost.

Besides the illustrations, Claire Van Vliet is also responsible for the typographic format of the LEC. Like the Janus Press version, Plantin type is used.  This type is a Dutch version of one used in the 16th century Antwerp printery of Christopher Plantin.  The Monthly Letter (ML) tells us “Its weight makes it ideal for accompanying the book’s dark-hued illustrations.” The ML also mentions that, for the cover of the LEC, Claire Van Vliet choose  a clothe in the Thebes pattern designed by Susan Thatcher for Lee/Jofa — an exotic array of lotuses in a decorative arrangement done in black and shades of brown and orange. The same colors are used within the book for ornaments and illustrations. Speaking of the illustrations, the relief etchings are etched plates that are printed like wood-engravings, “the incised lines coming out white against the dark solids. The medium requires a careful inking of the surface, and keeping the ink from entering the narrow furrows.” It is interesting to compare the illustrations in the LEC against those in the Janus Press edition shown above, with the coloring via pochoir in the Janus edition providing that extra pop that really makes it standout (along with the slightly larger scale).

About the Edition (Limited Editions Club)

  • Illustrations and typographic design by Claire Van Vliet
  • Introduction by American writer Edward Hoagland
  • Printed and bound at The Stinehour Press in black and orange inks, plus sienna-brown wherever the illustrations appear
  • Monotype 13.5 size of Plantin on a base of 17 points; matrices imported from England for this edition
  • Printed on deep ivory tone heavy-weight stock made at Mohawk mill
  • Endleaves in a orange-brown Strathmore paper
  • Bound in multi-color cotton
  • 9″ x 11″, 123 pages
  • Limited to 2000 copies, signed by Claire Van Vliet

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Cover and Spine
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Side View
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Side View
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample text #1 (Introduction)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample text #1 (Introduction)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample text #1 (Introduction)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample text #1 (Introduction)
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #8 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3 with text
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample text #2
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample text #2
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample text #3
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Sample text #3
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
The Circus of Doctor Lao, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

3 thoughts on “The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles Finney, Janus Press (1984); Also, The Limited Editions Club edition (1982)

  1. I bought this book directly from the LEC, and I immediately read it. At that time, I was drinking wine so I don’t remember much about it. Since I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in eight years, I want to read it again and discover what I missed during my wining days.

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