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The Work of the Hand

The Work of the Hand

The craft of letterpress printing has been renewed again and again, despite the advances in publishing technologies. For there is a strong desire among many of us in the book arts to feel words in our hands, to assemble them letter by letter in order to deepen our understanding of their shapes, an inner meaning that comes to us in a way not possible when only seen on a page. Type gives letters weight and substance, a physical presence; there is a contemplation that attends the assembly of every piece of lead. Thus the printer learns the poem in a very deep way, letter by letter.

There is a reward in mastering the skill of this assembly, the plan taking shape as a matrix, visual beauty hidden ihn the lead forms, which must be elicited. Design and inspiration follow a slow path, ideas sprung from the poet's language and held in the mind's eye till the inked proof comes alive.

The closer the artist approaches the realization of word as image, the closer together come skill of hand and acuity of eye. Ink laid accurately on the type forms; paper carefully chosen and handled; the meeting of the two by the care in the use of the tool, the press. How we come to love those tools!

After the ideas, the assembly, the attentive presswork, come all the processes of handling the printed sheets: the folding and gathering, the binding and decorating-- the finishing that makes the creative impulses of author, artist, designer and printer into a unified, whole thing. One of the intriguing aspects of bookmaking is that, if the idea is well realized, there are no surprises at the finish.

But somehow, after all this, the real care demanded seems to be in getting those objects out into the world, the distribution, as it is called. And there is a lot of the spirit of the hand felt here, too, gathering mailing lists, labeling catalogs, wrapping the packages, dealing with money. Here perhaps the hand is most impatient, and the printer's dedication most severely tried. Yet it is by attending to these humdrum details the we practice our right livelihood, and it is through them that the poet, the printer, and their community, join together in celebration.