Thoughts from October 2011

What’s the best gift a word nerd could get?

How about a metaphor?

(it also happens to be a teapot and cozy, but since liquids and books don’t mix, I just embrace its literary role…)

Like a Kid in a Toystore

Have I mentioned before that my favourite place at the University of Alberta… one of my five favourite places in the world, in fact… is the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library? It was part of my inspiration to start writing again, here in this space on the web, and I left there the last time thinking I had to find an excuse to go back and visit more often. Maybe I’m a little slower these days, being a person of a certain age, but it finally dawned on me that this space was the excuse. I wanted to start writing again because I’d gotten fired up anew about books in general by seeing those books in particular. So why not go back and write about those very things? I do believe they call this a positive feedback loop.

So here it is, the first of my Friday afternoons at the Peel. And to my joy and delight, it turns out that all I need to do in order to see, touch, and smell the treasures in this most special of Special Collections is to ask. Where to begin? This is one of my favourites: The Four Gospels, published by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1931 and typeset by the remarkable and controversial Eric Gill.

This book is, to me, what a book should be (a debate we can pursue later, I’m sure). Bound in leather and cloth, worn at the corners and spine, the book’s pages are rough and organic… alive somehow… a tangible contrast to today’s clean and mechanically cut volumes. It’s size evokes the weightiness of cultural capital that hearkens back from the first hand-copied Bibles to Gutenberg’s first printed volumes, and extending to hardcovers today. And eighty years after being first published and assembled, this volume has lost none of its power. I confess to being downright giddy when the book appeared, like magic, from the closed stacks in the back, placed before me to touch and read eighty years after Gill himself touched these very pages.

Whatever you may personally think of the contents, literary or spiritual, from a purely aesthetic point of view this is a good book. And since we’re talking about books, I thought this would be an appropriate sample to show up close. After all, it is all about “the word” around here!

As I turn the pages, I am struck by the subtleties, the imperfections that, ironically, make this book closer to perfect in my mind than the precision of modern digital typography. Handset, each letter on these pages was born of a singular piece of metal, selected and placed one at a time onto a plate. The ink bleeds ever so slightly at the edges of each letter, following minutely along the tangled fibers of the paper, yet restrained by the indentation left by the type, faintly shadowed marks that you can feel under your fingertips. No toner and laser here. It’s somehow more physical. More real.

Now before I go any further, I want to tackle head on the basic dilemna of writing about something that is best seen and experienced directly. Maybe one day I’ll write well enough to make you feel like you have, just by the power of a well-turned phrase or two… maybe one day I’ll even want to try. But even if I could, sometimes you’ve just got to have the picture, not the thousand words. No, more than just the picture. Four senses, in four dimensions, like a piece of music performed live, no matter how high the ‘fidelity’ of the recording you can achieve. So my intention here is not to replace your experience with a shadow of mine, but hopefully give you some motivation to seek out this piece yourself. With that in mind, I should tell you that the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library can be found in the basement of Rutherford Library South on the University of Alberta campus (check here for current hours). Bring picture ID, wash your hands on the way in, and go ask for Eric Gill’s Four Gospels, call number BS 2553 A3 1931. And feel free to tell them I sent you. Better yet, let me know when you’re going and I’ll see if I can join you!

Then if and when we do find ourselves in front of this book, we can together take a close and proper look at the pages, the images, the typography. Note the way the illustrations fit the text, fit with the text, fit in the text. Listen to the pages crinkle and crackle. And when we get (back) to the first page of the Book of John, “the beginning” wherein we find “the word,” we can take (another) look for a tiny extra bit of printing… a tiny pair of riders… hidden in the valley of the page. See them?

I didn’t have a chance to confirm my suspicions with the real experts in the Peel, my time this time being unfortunately short, but I wonder if these exist to make sure the binder gets the various signatures* of the book in the right order, a reminder to the actual human that assembled these pages together into a finished book. They don’t appear on every page, sometimes randomly when they do, sometimes in a seemingly logical sequence over a series of pages, clues to a mystery not even intended to be.

Something for me to ask about next time I’m in, if I’m not already off looking at another marvel previously hidden on the shelves…


* A signature is the set of pages you get when you print more than one page on a single sheet of paper, then fold and trim to size. Given that only the bottom and side edges of the pages are rough in the finished book, and given its overall size, we can safely conclude that Gill printed four pages on each side of a full sheet of paper, folded it twice, then trimmed the top edge to free the pages. My name is Winston and I am a book nerd…

The Monster at the End of this Post

Image of the cover of The Monster at the end of this BookPeople of a certain age will likely remember a favourite Little Golden Book from amongst their first readers. Mine is, hands down, the Monster at the end of this Book starring lovable, furry old Grover, written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Mike Smollin. I still have a copy, published in 1971 by the Western Publishing Company Inc. in conjunction with the Children’s Television Workshop. A lot of the signature gold spine has been rubbed off through hard usage, but that’s a good sign for a book, I think. And I couldn’t tell you for sure if this is the original copy I had as a kid, or just one I picked up from a used bookstore or garage sale somewhere. Either scenario is as likely.

I also can’t say for sure that any of the things I tell you now about this book would have occurred to me as a young child and new reader. But I am going to take the position that, as a person of a certain age, I get to start looking back and giving myself more credit than I deserve. Or put more properly, I think remarkable things can have profound effects on a curious mind, especially a very young one. And in retrospect, this book really is a remarkable thing.

An interior page from The Monster at the end of this BookTo begin with, the Monster at the end of this Book employs a technique in storytelling that some very smart grownups have labelled “breaking the fourth wall,” that imaginary boundary between the audience and the story. Lovable, furry old Grover, the main character in the book, actually knows that he is inside a book, on pages that he knows can turn, and he knows too that there is an outside of the book where we, the readers, live. It brings to mind an episode of the 1980s detective show Moonlighting (another reference for people of a certain age) in which an otherwise standard chase scene becomes something altogether unusual and unexpected. The lead characters, played by Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd, pursue the bad guy not out the office door but right out the side of the office set itself, directly onto the sound stage and eventually into studio golf carts ‘speeding’ through the studio lot. For Moonlighting, the disruption of the fourth wall results in comedy. With this book, the breaking of the fourth wall creates not so much a disruption as an invitation.

From his self-referential vantage point within the book, Grover speaks right to the reader, to the child, to you, to me. He acknowledges all of us out here, from right on the cover. Then on the first page, he starts peeling back the bottom corner, asking “What is on the next page?” Well wouldn’t we all like to know? And the moment we touch the page to complete what Grover started, we are hooked.

Interior details from The Monster at the end of this BookThe effect, I think, is to make this book far more “interactive” than anything we call interactive in this electronic day and age. The entire book is an intimate conversation with us, one that is entirely ours to move forward as Grover responds to us and we back to him. And in an added twist, we suddenly go from helping Grover by turning the first page, to driving him more and more nuts by turning each and every page that follows. Expressly against his wishes. Which is actually kind of mean and twisted, if you think about it. But exactly what makes it so hilarious. No matter what Grover says, you can keep turning the pages, and we do.

Which leads to perhaps the most profound lesson of all: with books, you, the reader, have power. When you turn the page, you make things happen. You are not passive. You are not sitting idly by and waiting to see what happens. You have all the control. You can turn the page any time you want. And not rope nor wood planks nor a wall of brick can stop you.

And what’s more, not only are you very strong, strong enough to turn any page, you are also brave, brave enough to go where even monsters fear to tread.

Read on!

Ellen & Raylene Wine Label

So this item is just a fun one from the personal archives, a custom label created when we decided to try our hand at making homemade wine with friends. Found the bottle while unpacking some boxes, and it’s now back on our shelves. The wine wasn’t great, but the label has aged well!

Black Riders origins

To start my first post, please let me introduce myself: my name is Winston Pei and I’m the founder and principal designer of Black Riders Design. Sounds very grand, eh? Well, truth be told, I’m also our only employee. Black Riders Design is me and I am Black Riders Design, and in the world of virtual identities, “Black Riders” has become something of a pseudonym. This newest incarnation of this website rises in part out of that state of being.

In particular, the focus here is shifting away from the business side a bit, and instead I’m letting this space become something a little more personal. A lot of things have led me to this point, but it really gelled today when I had a chance to go visit my favourite spot at the University of Alberta, the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. They happened to have some sweet specimens from the collection out on a table, and seeing them got me all fired up again about my passion for books and reading and all manner of related topics. That in turn sparked the idea of starting to share examples of these things, and my passion for them, with the interwebs.

I figured as a first item to share, what better than the book from whence came the name: Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism by Jerome McGann (Princeton UP, 1993). This volume in turn had drawn its title from Stephen Crane’s first published book, Black Riders and other lines, whose typographical innovation inspired poet Robert Carlton “Bob” Brown to say of his own optical poem Eyes on the Half-Shell, “I like to look at it, merely sit and look at it, take it all in without moving an eye. It gives me more than rhymed poetry. It rhymes in my eyes. Here are Black Riders for me at last galloping across a blank page.” In other words, it’s about making your mark, typographically speaking, which seemed fitting for a company with its roots in graphic design.

From there, the notion of black riders galloping about and making a mark in the world has grown to be something much larger for me. In all that I do, how can I leave my mark, my black riders?

And how can I help you leave yours? Let’s talk.