Ponderings

As Books and Vines hits the milestone of 500 articles (which this is), over 1200 subscribers and growing, and nearing 300,000 page views, I was reminded that I have been meaning to publish a few miscellaneous comments on various topics for quite some time now.  So dear reader, please excuse my musings while waiting for the next book review!

Topic I – To be or not to be….

I have been asked a number of times why my articles are not more ‘critically’ based. By this, most mean more explicitly pointing out less than adequate designs, questioning artistic choices, and generally highlighting what could have been done better. I agree that the role of an impartial critic is important for the furtherance of any field.  However, from the start of Books and Vines, I have said point blank such critic I am not, and do not intend to be!

  • First, and most importantly, I do not have skills in any of the crafts people producing fine and private press books have acquired, nor do I claim to have the artistic instinct or expertise to cast judgement on their work. I have opinions which have been honed by many years of immersing myself as a consumer of the private press end product, but opinions, even if reasonably well grounded based on exposure or experience, are still just opinions. I am not going to subject honest hard-working craftsmen and artists to possible negative sales implications just because my ‘opinion’ on stylistic choices, to use one example, are different from theirs. Indeed I do make such opinions known as they should be, privately and constructively.
  • Secondly, and unashamedly, I am first and foremost a fan of today’s fine and private press producers. I have gotten to know many of the publishers, printers, craftsmen and artists that contribute to today’s fine press eco-system personally. These people work extremely hard to create works near and dear to themselves; works special for those of us who appreciate the importance of this time honored craft. I want to see this hand-crated, artisanal, non-mass produced eco-system succeed, expand and carry into the future. My objective is simply to highlight their work towards this end.
  • Lastly, most of the books reviewed on Books and Vines come from my own collection. It stands to reason that books that I personally spend good, hard-earned money, are books that I like!

Do not get me wrong. I will not say I like something that I do not. Nor would I highlight something if I had any inclination that the producer of such just cranked it out — not out of devotion to the craft nor interest in the subject — just to make a buck.  Outside of such rare, nefarious behavior, I am much more interested in helping fine and private press publishers, not in criticizing them. With such super small limitations and even smaller margins on such, if Books and Vines can link up some buyers with those that produce these works near and dear to our hearts, great!  In addition, hopefully it sparks some interest in people not currently ‘hooked’ by the beauty and historical importance of the fine and private press movements. Culturally, we all lose if the methods utilized by fine and private press publishers were to fade away. The best way to prevent that is to widen the customer base for works of this type. I hope this rationale makes sense to you.

Fine and Private Press books -- Thank you to those of you who created these!
Fine and Private Press books — Thank you to those of you who created these!

Topic #II – W(h)ine-ing

When doing wine tastings, I often get thrown at me “but experiments show that even so-called experts, when tasting blind, often cannot tell a cheap bottle from an expensive one.” Besides the obvious reply that in and of itself something being expensive and something else not being so does not inherently mean that the more expensive will be better than the inexpensive, what really irritates me about it is….

Drinking fine wine (let’s define that for purposes of this article as wine produced in an artisanal manner, not what I call mass-produced industrial wine that is sold on most supermarket shelves) is an intellectual treat, of which taste is one component. While a single or double blind tasting can be useful for objectively determining the somewhat subjective quality of taste, it is far from an enjoyable way of truly ‘tasting’ wine, as drinking without context of what is being sipped on is like reading bad cliff notes with no context of what the author is writing about.

Fine artisanal wine tells a story within every bottle. It reflects the place of origin, the time in which the grapes were grown and picked, the heart of the winemaker and the soul of the vineyard. The combination of these factors can be magical, transporting the “thinking drinker” to times and places far from their own. For instance, regardless of the results of some blind taste test, I would always choose a Syrah from Jean Louis Chave, whose family has been making wine in the Rhone valley for 16 generations stretching back to  1481. While sipping the wine, you are drinking history, temporarily becoming one of the Chave family as you think about the generations of this family working the vines, pressing the grapes, and bottling the wine. Just think of all the history that this land, and this family, has seen. Such is represented in the contents of the bottle.

Some of the greatest plots of land on earth for wine, such as those in Burgundy, have had cultivated vines since the time of Christ and since medieval times have been delineated by micro-areas and specific vineyards.  There is a reason why Vosne Romanee, Chambolle Musigny, Gevrey Chambertin, etc. are so desirable (and expensive for that matter!). Chateauneuf du Pape is similar, with the first vineyards planted in Roman times. The name itself comes from the time when the Pope moved to Avignon in 1309. Drinking Cuvee des Cadettes  from Chateau La Nerthe, made pretty much exactly today how it was produced in the 1800’s, is remarkable. Sipping a Bordeaux from Château Haut-Brion, whose founding dates to 1525, allows you to share a table with the likes of Samuel Pepys who in 1663 wrote in his diary that he “drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with“, or Thomas Jefferson who in 1787 placed Haut-Brion among the four estates of first quality from his travels around France, calling it “the very best Bourdeaux wine.”

It is not just wine from estates hundreds of years old that make a wine of interest. One of my favorites, Horsepower Vineyards, in Walla Walla, Washington, eschews modernization using Red and Zeppo, two Belgian draft horses, to cultivate tightly spaced, 19th century-style vineyards using specialized farming equipment created by a blacksmith in Burgundy, France. Winemaker Christophe Baron, who himself comes from a family of a centuries-old Champagne house, has also implemented fully biodynamic farming practices. This is love of land, respect for the soil and for the vines. It is allowing the wine to speak for itself, and for the winemaker to have a place at your table. It, like the older French wines mentioned above, allows you to think while you imbibe.

Another favorite, Sine Qua Non, in some ways seems the opposite of Horsepower. Founder and winemaker extraordinaire Manfred Krankl says straight out “we have an aversion to labels and dogmas or mindless ritual that are sometimes called tradition.” He  goes on to say:

…our goal has been and always will be to understand Mother Nature’s often oblique ways and (re)act accordingly so that we may create wines that express all that Nature has so generously given us. And all that this beautifully warm and sunny place called California has to offer. Wines that speak to the heart and the mind both. Wines that are ripe and flavorful, but also graceful and balanced. Wines  that are perfectly enjoyable and delicious young, but  that will age and show a new and interesting personality with each passing year. Wines that surprise with each sip and where the last drop – not the first sip – was the best one. Wines that make you smile and happy and appreciate all that is lovely.

His wines have became so popular among wine aficionados that their wait list is about a decade long, and bottles go for many times their release price on the secondary market. Krankl may not be constrained by tradition per se, but his devotion to the the artisanal spirit which is shared by all the wines mentioned in this article results in the very best of wine tradition. His work is very personal and extremely hands on. What ends up in the bottle is an extension of himself and the land he works.

In short, if all you care about is blind taste, by all means buy the least expensive bottle that you like the taste of (just as if all that matters to you is the words of A Tale of Two Cities, buy a cheap paperback or an e-book). I do not mean that critically, just rationally. But, if you want a fuller experience, one that tickles the intellect, buy a bottle made in an artisanal spirit, born of love of craft, something personal, something with history on its side (for instance A Tale of Two Cities Nonesuch Press edition!). While some I mentioned above are quite dear cost wise, there are many, many artisanal wines from across the world that remain very affordable.

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Since 1481!

Topic III – Free Speech

I have pretty strictly keep Books and Vines out of anything to do with politics, as it is much better for all of us to have a place to go where we can just read about and look at things we love, without having to be irritated by the politicalization that seems to have infiltrated all aspects of society these days. I intend to stay that way. This topic comes dangerously close to infringing on that rule, but please trust mean that I mean this rant non-politically. I am not coming at it from a left or right perspective.

I have been growing more and more disenchanted with what seems to be a growing chorus across the West for restrictions on free speech. I would hope that most people who bother to frequent Books and Vines, and certainly the artists and craftspeople whose work we focus on, are amongst the first to fully understand and appreciate the importance of free speech as the end product of books or art become hallow in the absence of such. Literature or art that must be filtered or approved through some authority loses its stature completely as its honesty, it’s purity, it’s very humanness is taken from it.

Personally, I would hate to live in a world where in writing or art offense cannot be risked. Where debate is shut down not by overwhelming intellectual force, but by bureaucratic stupidity or autocratic dictates. Fear of seeing or hearing something one finds offensive or disagrees should never trump hope in the certain knowledge that the best and only way to defeat bad ideas is by being equally free to express good ideas. In fact, I have a constitutional impatience, and lack of tolerance, for those who want to control or dictate what is acceptable speech.

So, to be politically incorrect, “man-up” people. You hear something you do not like. Don’t yell “shut-up”, go stick your head in the sand, or worse, try to get the authorities to shut it down….no, read up, get smart, and counter such as free people should, with your own speech that makes clear to others how wrong-headed what you heard or saw was. Do not give up, just because it is easier to go with the flow, this hard-won cultural necessity of free speech, developed through hundreds of years of struggle including countless amounts of blood, sweat and tears.

Topic IV – Barbarian says it well…. 

It is always enjoyable and deeply though-provoking (not to mention often humorous) to read the Barbarian Press website. Each time it is update, there is always something well worth contemplating. Their synopsis of the Press includes this classic statement on their approach to making books:

Our aims have not substantially altered since we founded the press: to publish poetry, translations, classics, and belles lettres in a style which both glorifies the text and reveals it to the reader with a minimum of interference….. We feel that nothing should come between the text and the reader, and it is our view that typography should have, in Robert Bringhurst’s phrase, ‘a statuesque transparency’: like good film music, the best typography is effective to the degree that it is unobtrusive – supporting, not supplanting, the principal experience of the reader. Private press printing is a craft, not an art. The design and making of beautiful books is only secondarily a matter of self-expression; its first excellence is to serve the author and the reader.

A very fine philosophy, in my humble opinion! What I really enjoyed in one of the latest updates to the website, is a section here called “The state of the fine press book.

Crispin Elsted’s thoughts on the term ‘artist’s book’ and the phrase ‘book arts’ is extremely interesting, and it just happens that I completely agree with his well-stated position. In discussing a particular ‘artist’s book’ he asks “Can we not agree, without seeming terminally philistine, that although it may be in some sense about the book, such a piece in fact is not a book, whatever else it may be?” I particularly chuckled when he goes on to say  “There is nothing wrong, after all, with something’s not being a book: my bicycle is not a book, nor is a loaf of bread, and neither is the worse for it.” For my part, this hits home because I see a lot of younger people interested in what they call the ‘book arts,’ but often do not seem to understand, study or care much for the actual fundamentals of what makes up a finely made book (you know, the type that you actually read!). It seems that simple things like type design or selection and basics of page design are passé, instead making a splash with something ‘cool’ is what is often the objective. My hope is that younger folk come into this field seeking first to learn from the greats that preceded them, followed by gaining years of experience producing finely made books from a position of standing on the shoulders of those giants…. Then, with this foundation within them, if they so desire, embark on ‘experimental’ work (better said by Mr. Elsted as “aim to expand the apparent limits of the codex as a form, using the form as a platform“), as has some extremely accomplished private press personages (Mr. Elsted gives examples such as Peter Koch’s Sacajawea, Claire Van Vliet’s Aunt Sallie’s Lament, Richard Bigus’s Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, Arion Press’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and many of the productions of Robin Price, Julia Chen’s Flying Fish Press, Susan Allix, Carolee Campbell’s Ninja Press, and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn Press, etc).

Very related to ‘Topic III‘ in this article, Mr. Elsted writes:

European tradition and culture has come under heavy fire in the last forty or fifty years in North America and even in Europe, largely through revisionist historical theorizing about Western culture, almost all negative, by a new breed – the populist public intellectual. Like most such uninformed preoccupations, this has been suffered to thrive for lack of considered opposition, in turn the result of the severely diminished presence of European history, literature, music, and art in North American public education.

Here, here! Such a breath of fresh air. We in the West seem to suffer from an insistent need to tear ourselves down, to dumb ourselves down to the lowest common denominator in some sort of egalitarian frenzy to prove to all how modern and ‘hip’ we are.  Having judgement is bad, even evil. ‘Antiquated’ ideas around standards of behavior, etiquette and morality are shamed instead of those flaunting their disdain for such. Improving cultural norms often take decades, if not centuries, and is best accomplished through an understanding and studying of the lessons of the past — across all cultures. It is a thoughtful and educated culture that improves upon itself, that recognizes its wrongs and works to correct them, and that remains open to explore and integrate ideas from other cultures. A complete lack of understanding of the works that made us who we are, and of works from around the world in which we live, let alone a disdain for such, is the surest way to lose the path to a better future. One great thing I like about today’s fine and private press publishers is they are providing, using crafts from our forefathers, a great variety of these very works for us and our posterity.

Fancy: 8 Odes of John Keats, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #2 (Fancy)
Fancy: 8 Odes of John Keats, Barbarian Press

Now, back to book reviews!!!

4 thoughts on “Ponderings

  1. I have well over 100 TAP books, AND a few copies of the UNCUT not faded press sheets of the Labels for that book.

  2. Great to see the Gargantua and Pantagruel there. I now own the remnants of the Anthoensen press, and their long-time dedicated customers.

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