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…

Comment from Suzanne, January 16, 2012 at 9:24 am

Keep on exploring and writing Winston

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