Punches, matrices and fetishists
Jan 19th 2012, 16:18 by Z.P. | NEW YORK
WITH the proliferation of digital reading devices, the decline of the book-as-physical-object appears inevitable. But bibliophiles won’t have to find a new hobby quite yet.
Those pesky e-readers have inspired a concurrent desire to protect and revere the tangible book. The Grolier Club in New York is helping to lead the way. Established in 1884, this self-described society for bibliophiles is the oldest of its kind in America. Even as technology is drastically changing the process by which books are made, with the computerisation of printing and typesetting, the club is hardly singing dirges. "If there was never, from this moment on, another book published, there would be fodder for people who wanted to collect books—and do interesting things with books—for the next 200 years," says its director, Eric Holzenberg.
For those interested in the artistry of traditional book-making, The Grolier Club has a fine new exhibition, titled "Printing for Kingdom, Empire, and Republic: Treasure from the Archives of the Imprimerie Nationale". Organised by H. George Fletcher, a former curator at the Morgan Library & Museum and a retired director of special collections at the New York Public Library, this show offers a rare chance to view a range of exquisitely crafted books.
Among the hundreds of artefacts on show, all of which are on loan from the Imprimerie Nationale, France’s state printing establishment, are punches and matrices from the 17th century and illustrated books by artists such as Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti. A highlight is an original copy of poet Paul Verlaine’s fin de siècle "Parallelement". "A lot of people who come to see the exhibition don’t realise the effort it took to create typography, to create a book, for some 450 years. So it’s been a lot of fun and really interesting to see the reactions from people," Mr Fletcher says. Participating in The Grolier Club is a members-only affair, but the exhibition is free and open to the public, as is the impressive building and its unique contents.
As a flag-bearer for the physical book, Mr Holzenberg sees the club as an important showcase for old books, and as a forum for conversations about the publishing world at large. "Thirty or 40 years ago very few people were interested in books as craft objects," he says. "But now everybody who reads has a choice to make: they can get their text digitally or physically, and that automatically creates the debate 'What’s more important—the text as electrons or the text as physical object?'" For some, however, there isn't much debate. "I just like the physical book," says Mr Fletcher. "I’ve been a book collector since I was 15. It sort of defines me."
"Printing for Kingdom, Empire & Republic: Treasures From the Archives of the Imprimerie Nationale" is on until February 4th at The Grolier Club in Manhattan