Gutenberg’s Fingerprint

I don’t have an e-reader. I love books. All the books. As long as they come on paper. Merilyn Simonds book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is a paper book. But it’s about her experiences simultaneously producing an entirely handmade, low volume, old-school printed book and a digital edition of the same collection of stories.

It’s also stuffed with the history of printing and the future of books. Loving books and bookish things is pretty much a requirement for tackling this one.

This books contains fun facts about bookselling over the centuries: “In France, Napoleon created a system whereby a bookseller who wanted to set up shop had to supply four references and a certificate from the mayor attesting to his morality, as well as four further references that confirmed his professional abilities as a bookseller. If successful in his application, the bookseller then had to swear a oath of loyalty to the regime.”

Call me crazy, but maybe we should bring back the morality requirement for people wanting to start a business. Then, maybe, there would be fewer bosses who yell at employees, sleep with interns, and generally behave like animals at work. I like it.

Simonds also shines a light on the complexity of book making that we take for granted. It wasn’t like Gutenberg created a press and was off to the races. “Gradually, I’ve come to understand that the printing press wasn’t one invention, it was a series of problems that had to be solved: getting paper that would take an impression, type that could be easily interchanged and reused, ink that would stick to the metal yet dry quickly. By comparison, developing the press itself seems relatively straightforward,” Simonds writes.

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is also a deeply personal journey story. She was approached by Hugh at Thee Hellbox Press, who wanted to publish some of her experimental short fiction in book, entirely made by hand. Charmed, Simonds agrees. They spend the next year working with other artisans to create 300 books, printed on an old press, in the same way books were printed for many years before new, faster technologies took over. The endpapers are created partially with cuttings from Simond’s garden. Other paper is sourced from small, local producers. The ink is mixed by hand. The type is set, slowly, and reset when there are mistakes. The illustrations are created by Simond’s son, who at the same time is designing the electronic book of The Paradise Project. Simond’s juxtaposes these two experiences and finds similarities (and differences) in the attention to detail and the artistry of both.

Simond’s takes the opportunity to explore our relationship with the written word and how it has changed over history. It has been a long journey and is still evolving. But worth it, as any book lover will attest.

Merilyn Simonds was at Events 18 (Apples, Birds and Books) and 89 (The Sunday Brunch) of the 2017 Vancouver Writers Fest.

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