Read A CONSTRUCTIVE CRITIC OF THE BOOK of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on ReadCentral.com.

At the meeting of the British librarians at Cambridge in 1882 a bomb was thrown into the camp of the book producers in the form of the question: Who spoils our new English books? In the explosion which followed, everybody within range was hit, from “the uncritical consumer” to “the untrained manufacturer.” This dangerous question was asked and answered by Henry Stevens of Vermont, who, as a London bookseller, had for nearly forty years handled the products of the press new and old, had numbered among his patrons such critical booklovers as John Carter Brown and James Lenox, and had been honored with the personal friendship of William Pickering the publisher and Charles Whittingham the printer. He had therefore enjoyed abundant opportunity for qualifying himself to know whereof he spoke. If his words were severe, he stood ready to justify them with an exhibit of sixty contemporary books which he set before his hearers.

The truth is, however unwilling his victims may have been to admit it, that his attack was only too well timed. The men of creative power, who had ennobled English book production during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, had passed away, and books were being thrown together instead of being designed as formerly. The tradition of excellence in English bookmaking still held sway over the public, and, as their books sold, most producers saw no reason to disturb themselves. What to them was progress in other lands, or the claims of a future that could not be enforced? But after Mr. Stevens’s attack they could at least no longer plead ignorance of their faults. It is certain that an improvement soon began, which culminated in the present great era of book design throughout the English world. If the famous bookseller’s address were not the cause of the change, it at least marked a turning point, and it deserves to be studied as one of the historic documents of modern printing. It is more than this, however; it is a piece of creative criticism, and though teaching not by example but by contraries, it forms one of the best existing brief compends of what a well-made book must be.

The critic of books as they were made a generation ago begins with the assertion of a truth that cannot be too often repeated: “The manufacture of a beautiful and durable book costs little if anything more than that of a clumsy and unsightly one.” He adds that once a handsome book and a new English book were synonymous terms, but that now the production of really fine books is becoming one of England’s lost arts. He indulges in a fling at “the efforts of certain recent printers to retrieve this decadence by throwing on to the already overburdened trade several big, heavy, and voluminous works of standard authors termed ’editions de luxe.’” He assures his hearers that his judgments were not formed on the spur of the moment, but were based partly on long personal observations Stevens was the author of that widely influential piece of selective bibliography, “My English Library,” London, 1853 and on the results of the international exhibitions since 1851, especially those of Vienna (1874), Philadelphia (1876), and Paris (1878), in the last of which he was a juror. His conclusion is “that the present new English, Scotch, and Irish books, of a given size and price, are not of the average quality of high art and skill in manufacture that is found in some other countries.” He reminds his hearers that “it is no excuse to say that the rapidity of production has been largely increased. That amounts merely to confessing that we are now consuming two bad books in the place of one good one.”

Mr. Stevens now comes to the direct question: Who spoils our new English books? He answers it by naming not less than ten parties concerned: (1) the author, (2) the publisher, (3) the printer, (4) the reader, (5) the compositor, (6) the pressman or machinist, (7) the papermaker, (8) the ink maker, (9) the bookbinder, and (10), last but not least, the consumer. There is no question of honesty or dishonesty, he says, but there is a painful lack of harmony, the bungling work of one or the clumsy manipulation of another often defeating the combined excellence of all the rest. The cure he foresees in the establishment of a school of typography, in which every disciple of these ten tribes shall study a recognized grammar of book manufacture based on the authority of the best examples.

He now returns to the charge and pays his respects to each member of the “ten tribes” in turn. The author’s offense is found to consist largely of ignorant meddling. The publisher is too often ignorant, fussy, unskilled, pedantic, shiftless, and money-seeking, willing to make books unsightly if their cheapness will sell them. The printer is the scapegoat, and many books are spoiled in spite of his efforts, while he gets all the blame. But he is apt to have faults of his own, the worst of which is a failure in the careful design of the books intrusted to him. “It was not so,” says Mr. Stevens, “with our good old friends William Pickering and Charles Whittingham, publisher and printer, working for many years harmoniously together. It was their custom, as both used repeatedly to tell us, to each first sit upon every new book and painfully hammer out in his own mind its ideal form and proportions. Then two Sundays at least were required to compare notes in the little summer house in Mr. Whittingham’s garden at Chiswick, or in the after-dinner sanctuary, to settle the shape and dress of their forthcoming ‘friend of man.’ It was amusing as well as instructive to see each of them, when they met, pull from his bulging side pocket well-worn title-pages and sample leaves for discussion and consideration. When they agreed, perfection was at hand, and the ‘copy’ went forward to the compositors, but not till then. The results, to this day, are seen in all the books bearing the imprint of William Pickering, nearly all of which bear also evidence that they came from the ’Chiswick Press.’”

The reader, Mr. Stevens holds to be, under the printer, the real man of responsibility; but he too is often hampered by want of plan and due knowledge of the proportions of the book that he is handling. He also should go to the school of typography, and the readers of different offices should learn to agree. The compositor is pronounced “a little person of great consequence.” His moral responsibility is not great, but too much is often thrust upon him; in fact he is, in many cases, the real maker of the book. “He ought to have a chance at the school of typography, and be better instructed in his own business, and be taught not to assume the business of any other sinner joined with him in the manufacture of books.” Between the compositor and the pressman is a long road in which many a book is spoiled, but the responsibility is hard to place. Few people have any idea what constitute the essentials of a book’s form and proportions. Yet our old standards, in manuscript and print, demand “that the length of a printed page should have relation to its width, and that the top should not exceed half the bottom margin, and that the front should be double the back margin.”

The papermaker comes in for a large share of blame, but the remedy lies only in the hands of the consumer, who must insist on receiving good and durable paper. “The ink-maker is a sinner of the first magnitude.” The first printing inks are still bright, clean, and beautiful after four hundred years; but who will give any such warrant to even the best inks of the present day? Mr. Stevens pronounces the sallow inks of our day as offensive to sight as they are to smell. The bookbinder is adjudged equal in mischief to any other of the ten sinners, and the rest are called upon to combine to prevent their books from being spoiled in these last hands.

The consumer, after all, is the person most to blame, for he has the power to control all the rest. Or, in the critic’s closing words: “Many of our new books are unnecessarily spoiled, and it matters little whether this or that fault be laid to this or that sinner. The publisher, the printer, or the binder may sometimes, nay, often does, if he can, shift the burden of his sins to the shoulders of his neighbor, but all the faults finally will come back on the consumer if he tolerates this adulteration longer.”

The great constructive feature of Mr. Stevens’s address, which is one that brings it absolutely up to date, is his call for a school of typography, which shall teach a recognized grammar of book manufacture, especially printing, a grammar as standard as Lindley Murray’s. He believes that the art of bookmaking cannot be held to the practice of the laws of proportion, taste, and workmanship, which were settled once for all in the age of the scribes and the first printers, without the existence and pressure of some recognized authority. Such an authority, he holds, would be furnished by a school of typography. This, as we interpret it, would be not necessarily a school for journeymen, but a school for those who are to assume the responsibility too often thrown upon the journeymen, the masters of book production. With a large annual output of books taken up by a public none too deeply versed in the constituents of a well-made book, there would seem to be much hope for printing as an art from the existence of such an institution, which would be critical in the interest of sound construction, and one might well wish that the course in printing recently established at Harvard might at some time be associated with the name of its prophet of a generation ago, Henry Stevens of Vermont.