Read THE BOOK BEAUTIFUL of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on

We who use books every day as tools of trade or sources of inspiration are apt to overlook the fact that the book, on its material side, is an art object. Not, indeed, that it ranks with the products of poetry, painting, sculpture, and other arts of the first grade; but it has a claim to our consideration on the level of the minor arts, along with jewelry, pottery, tapestry, and metal work. Moreover, its intimate association with literature, of which it is the visible setting, gives it a charm that, while often only reflected, may also be contributory, heightening the beauty that it enshrines.

Using the word beauty for the result of artistic mastery, we may say that in the other arts beauty is the controlling factor in price, but in the book this is the case only exceptionally. As a consequence beautiful books are more accessible for purchase or observation than any other equally beautiful objects. For the price of a single very beautiful rug one can obtain a small library of the choicest books. Except in the case of certain masterpieces of the earliest printing, in which rarity is joined to beauty, high prices for books have nothing to do with their artistic quality. Even for incunabula one need pay only as many dollars as for tapestries of the same grade one would have to pay thousands. In book collecting, therefore, a shallow purse is not a bar to achievement, and in our day of free libraries one may make good progress in the knowledge and enjoyment of beautiful books without any expense at all.

Public taste is probably as advanced in the appreciation of the book beautiful as of any other branch of art, but it is active rather than enlightened. This activity is a good sign, for it represents the first stage in comprehension; the next is the consciousness that there is more in the subject than had been realized; the third is appreciation. The present chapter is addressed to those and they are many who are in the second stage. The first piece of advice to those who seek acquaintance with the book beautiful is: Surround yourself with books that the best judges you know call beautiful; inspect them, handle them; cultivate them as you would friends. It will not be long before most other books begin to annoy you, though at first you cannot tell why. Then specific differences one after another will stand out, until at last you come to know something of the various elements of the book, their possibilities of beauty or ugliness, and their relations one to another. No one should feel ashamed if this process takes a long time is indeed endless. William Morris pleaded to having sinned in the days of ignorance, even after he had begun to make books. So wide is the field and so many and subtle are the possible combinations that all who set out to know books must expect, like the late John Richard Green, to “die learning.” But the learning is so delightful and the company into which it brings us is so agreeable that we have no cause to regret our lifelong apprenticeship.

The first of all the qualities of the book beautiful is fitness. It must be adapted to the literature which it contains, otherwise it will present a contradiction. Imagine a “Little Classic” Josephus or a folio Keats. The literature must also be worthy of a beautiful setting, else the book will involve an absurdity. Have we not all seen presentation copies of government documents which gave us a shock when we passed from the elegant outside to the commonplace inside? But the ideal book will go beyond mere fitness; it will be both an interpretation of its contents and an offering of homage to its worth. The beauty of the whole involves perfect balance as well as beauty of the parts. No one must take precedence of the rest, but there must be such a perfect harmony that we shall think first of the total effect and only afterwards of the separate elements that combine to produce it. This greatly extends our problem, but also our delight in its happy solutions.

The discerning reader has probably noticed that we have already smuggled into our introduction the notion that the book beautiful is a printed book; and, broadly speaking, so it must be at the present time. But we should not forget that, while the printed book has charms and laws of its own, the book was originally written by hand and in this form was developed to a higher pitch of beauty than the printed book has ever attained. As Ruskin says, “A well-written book is as much pleasanter and more beautiful than a printed book as a picture is than an engraving.” Calligraphy and illumination are to-day, if not lost arts, at best but faint echoes of their former greatness. They represent a field of artistic effort in which many persons of real ability might attain far greater distinction and emolument than in the overcrowded ordinary fields of art. Printing itself would greatly benefit from a flourishing development of original bookmaking, gaining just that stimulus on the art side that it needs to counterbalance the pressure of commercialism. At present, however, we shall commit no injustice if, while remembering its more perfect original, we accept the printed book as the representative of the book beautiful; but, as a matter of fact, most that we shall have to say of it will apply with little change to the manuscript book.

A final point by way of preface is the relation of the book beautiful to the well-made book. The two are not identical. A book may be legible, strong, and durable, yet ill-proportioned and clumsy, ugly in every detail. On the other hand, the book beautiful must be well made, else it will not keep its beauty. The point where the two demands tend most to conflict is at the hinge of the cover, where strength calls for thickness of leather and beauty for thinness. The skill of the good binder is shown in harmonizing these demands when he shaves the under side of the leather for the joint. Let us now take up the elements of the book one by one and consider their relations to beauty.

To one who never had seen a book before it would seem, as it stands on the shelf or lies on the table, a curious rectangular block; and such it is in its origin, being derived from the Roman codex, which was a block of wood split into thin layers. When closed, therefore, the book must have the seeming solidity of a block; but open it and a totally new character appears. It is now a bundle of thin leaves, and its beauty no longer consists in its solidity and squareness, but in the opposite qualities of easy and complete opening, and flowing curves. This inner contradiction, so far from making the book a compromise and a failure, is one of the greatest sources of its charm, for each condition must be met as if the other did not exist, and when both are so met, we derive the same satisfaction as from any other combination of strength and grace, such as Schiller celebrates in his “Song of the Bell.”

The book therefore consists of a stiff cover joined by a flexible back in the book beautiful a tight back and inclosing highly flexible leaves. The substance of the board is not visible, being covered with an ornamental material, either cloth or leather, but it should be strong and tough and in thickness proportioned to the size of the volume. In very recent years we have available for book coverings really beautiful cloths, which are also more durable than all but the best leathers; but we have a right to claim for the book beautiful a covering of leather, and full leather, not merely a back and hinges. We have a wide range of beauty in leathers, from the old ivory of parchment when it has had a few centuries in which to ripen its color to the sensuous richness of calf and the splendor of crushed levant. The nature of the book must decide, if the choice is yet to be made. But, when the book has been covered with appropriate leather so deftly that the leather seems “grown around the board,” and has been lettered on the back a necessary addition giving a touch of ornament we are brought up against the hard fact that, unless the decorator is very skillful indeed a true artist as well as a deft workman he cannot add another touch to the book without lessening its beauty. The least obtrusive addition will be blind tooling, or, as in so many old books, stamping, which may emphasize the depth of color in the leather. The next step in the direction of ornament is gilding, the next inlaying. In the older books we find metal clasps and corners, which have great decorative possibilities; but these, like precious stones, have disappeared from book ornamentation in modern times before the combined inroad of the democratic and the classic spirit.

Having once turned back the cover, our interest soon forsakes it for the pages inclosed by it. The first of these is the page opposite the inside of the cover; obviously it should be of the same or, at least, of a similar material to the body of the book. But the inside of the cover is open to two treatments; it may bear the material either of the outer covering or of the pages within. So it may display, for instance, a beautiful panel of leather doublure or it may share with the next page a decorative lining paper; but that next page should never be of leather, for it is the first page of the book.

As regards book papers, we are to-day in a more fortunate position than we were even a few years ago; for we now can obtain, and at no excessive cost, papers as durable as those employed by the earliest printers. It is needless to say that these are relatively rough papers. They represent one esthetic advance in papermaking since the earliest days in that they are not all dead white. Some of the books of the first age of printing still present to the eye very nearly the blackest black on the whitest white. But, while this effect is strong and brilliant, it is not the most pleasing. The result most agreeable to the eye still demands black or possibly a dark blue ink, but the white of the paper should be softened. Whether we should have made this discovery of our own wit no one can tell; but it was revealed to us by the darkening of most papers under the touch of time. Shakespeare forebodes this yellowing of his pages; but what was then thought of as a misfortune has since been accepted as an element of beauty, and now book papers are regularly made “antique” as well as “white.” Even white does not please us unless it inclines to creamy yellow rather than to blue. But here, as everywhere, it is easy to overstep the bounds of moderation and turn excess into a defect. The paper of the book beautiful will not attract attention; we shall not see it until our second look at the page. The paper must not be too thick for the size of the book, else the volume will not open well, and its pages, instead of having a flowing character, will be stiff and hard.

The sewing of the book is not really in evidence, except indirectly. Upon the sewing and gluing, after the paper, depends the flexibility of the book; but the sewing in most early books shows in the raised bands across the back, which are due to the primitive and preferable stitch. It may also show in some early and much modern work in saw-marks at the inner fold when the book is spread wide open; but no such book can figure as a book beautiful. The head band is in primitive books a part of the sewing, though in all modern books, except those that represent a revival of medieval methods, it is something bought by the yard and stuck in without any structural connection with the rest of the book.

It is the page and not the cover that controls the proportions of the book, as the living nautilus controls its inclosing shell. The range in the size of books is very great from the “fly’s-eye Dante” to “Audubon’s Birds” but the range in proportion within the limits of beauty is astonishingly small, a difference in the relation of the width of the page to its height between about sixty and seventy-five per cent. If the width is diminished to nearer one-half the height, the page becomes too narrow for beauty, besides making books of moderate size too narrow to open well. On the other hand, if the width is much more than three-quarters of the height, the page offends by looking too square. In the so-called “printer’s oblong,” formed by taking twice the width for the diagonal, the width is just under fifty-eight per cent of the height, and this is the limit of stately slenderness in a volume. As we go much over sixty per cent, the book loses in grace until we approach seventy-five per cent, when a new quality appears, which characterizes the quarto, not so much beauty, perhaps, except in small sizes, as a certain attractiveness, like that of a freight boat, which sets off the finer lines of its more elegant associates. A really square book would be a triumph of ugliness. Oblong books also rule themselves out of our category. A book has still a third element in its proportions, thickness. A very thin book may be beautiful, but a book so thick as to be chunky or squat is as lacking in elegance as the words we apply to it. To err on the side of thickness is easy; to err on the side of thinness is hard, since even a broadside may be a thing of beauty.

We now come to the type-page, of which the paper is only the carrier and framework. This should have, as nearly as possible, the proportion of the paper really it is the type that should control the paper and the two should obviously belong together. The margins need not be extremely large for beauty; an amount of surface equal to that occupied by the type is ample. There was once a craze for broad margins and even for “large-paper” copies, in which the type was lost in an expanse of margin; but book designers have come to realize that the proportion of white to black on a page can as easily be too great as too small. Far more important to the beauty of a page than the extent of the margin are its proportions. The eye demands that the upper margin of a printed page or a framed engraving shall be narrower than the lower, but here the kinship of page to picture ceases. The picture is seen alone, but the printed page is one of a pair and makes with its mate a double diagram. This consists of two panels of black set between two outer columns of white and separated by a column of white. Now if the outer and inner margins of a page are equal, the inner column of the complete figure will be twice as wide as the outer. The inner margin of the page should therefore be half (or, to allow for the sewing and the curve of the leaf, a little more than half) the width of the outer. Then, when we open the book, we shall see three columns of equal width. The type and paper pages, being of the same shape, should as a rule be set on a common diagonal from the inner upper corner to the outer lower corner. This arrangement will give the same proportion between the top and bottom margins as was assigned to the inner and outer. It is by attention to this detail that one of the greatest charms in the design of the book may be attained.

We saw that the shape of the book is a rectangle, and this would naturally be so if there were no other reason for it than because the smallest factor of the book, the type, is in the cross-section of its body a rectangle. The printed page is really built up of tiny invisible rectangles, which thus determine the shape of the paper page and of the cover. A page may be beautiful from its paper, its proportions, its color effects, even if it is not legible; but the book beautiful, really to satisfy us, must neither strain the eye with too small type nor offend it with fantastic departures from the normal. The size of the type must not be out of proportion to that of the page or the column; for two or more columns are not barred from the book beautiful. The letters must be beautiful individually and beautiful in combination. It has been remarked that while roman capitals are superb in combination, black-letter capitals are incapable of team play, being, when grouped, neither legible nor beautiful. There has been a recent movement in the direction of legibility that has militated against beauty of type, and that is the enlarging of the body of the ordinary lowercase letters at the expense of its limbs, the ascenders and descenders, especially the latter. The eye takes little account of descenders in reading, because it runs along a line just below the tops of the ordinary letters, about at the bar of the small e; nevertheless, to one who has learned to appreciate beauty in type design there is something distressing in the atrophied or distorted body of the g in so many modern types and the stunted p’s and q’s which the designer clearly did not mind! The ascenders sometimes fare nearly as badly. Now types of this compressed character really call for leading, or separation of the lines; and when this has been done, the blank spaces thus created might better have been occupied by the tops and bottoms of unleaded lines containing letters of normal length and height. Too much leading, like too wide margins, dazzles and offends the eye with its excess of white. The typesetting machines have also militated against beauty by requiring that every letter shall stand within the space of its own feet or shoulders. Thus the lowercase f and y and the uppercase Q are shorn of their due proportions. These are points that most readers do not notice, but they are essential, for the type of the book beautiful must not be deformed by expediency. On the other hand, it need not be unusual; if it is, it must be exceptionally fine to pass muster at all. The two extremes of standard roman type, Caslon and Bodoni, are handsome enough for any book of prose. One may go farther in either direction, but at one’s risk. For poetry, Cloister Oldstyle offers a safe norm, from which any wide departure must have a correspondingly strong artistic warrant. All these three types are beautiful, in their letters themselves, and in the combinations of their letters into lines, paragraphs, and pages. Beautiful typography is the very foundation of the book beautiful.

But beautiful typography involves other elements than the cut of the type itself. The proofreading must be trained and consistent, standing for much more than the mere correction of errors. The presswork must be strong and even. The justification must be individual for each line, and not according to a fixed scale as in machine setting; even when we hold the page upside down, we must not be able to detect any streamlets of white slanting across the page. Moreover, if the page is leaded, the spacing must be wider in proportion, so that the color picture of the rectangle of type shall be even and not form a zebra of black and white stripes. It is hardly necessary to say that the registration must be true, so that the lines of the two pages on the same leaf shall show accurately back to back when one holds the page to the light. Minor elements of the page may contribute beauty or ugliness according to their handling: the headline and page number, their character and position; notes marginal or indented, footnotes; chapter headings and initials; catch-words; borders, head and tail pieces, vignettes, ornamental rules. Even the spacing of initials is a task for the skilled craftsman. Some printers go so far as to miter or shave the type-body of initials to make them, when printed, seem to cling more closely to the following text. Indenting, above all in poetry, is a feature strongly affecting the beauty of the page. Not too many words may be divided between lines; otherwise the line endings will bristle with hyphens. A paragraph should not end at the bottom of a page nor begin too near it, neither should a final page contain too little nor be completely full. Minor parts of the book, the half-title, the dedication page, the table of contents, the preface, the index, present so many opportunities to make or mar the whole. Especially is this true of the title-page. This the earliest books did not have, and many a modern printer, confronted with a piece of refractory title copy, must have sighed for the good old days of the colophon. Whole books have been written on the title-page; it must suffice here to say that each represents a new problem, a triumphant solution of which gives the booklover as much pleasure to contemplate as any other single triumph of the volume.

But what of color splendid initials in red, blue, or green, rubricated headings, lines, or paragraphs? It is all a question of propriety, literary and artistic. The same principle holds as in decoration of binding. A beautiful black and white page is so beautiful that he who would improve it by color must be sure of his touch. The beauty of the result and never the beauty of the means by itself must be the test.

But books are not always composed of text alone. We need not consider diagrams, which hardly concern the book beautiful, except to say that, being composed of lines, they are often really more decorative than illustrations fondly supposed to be artistic. The fact that an engraving is beautiful is no proof that it will contribute beauty to a book; it may only make an esthetic mess of the text and itself. As types are composed of firm black lines, only fairly strong black-line engravings have any artistic right in the book. This dictum, however, would rule out so many pictures enjoyed by the reader that he may well plead for a less sweeping ban; so, as a concession to weakness, we may allow white-line engravings and half-tones if they are printed apart from the text and separated from it, either by being placed at the end of the book or by having a sheet of opaque paper dividing each from the text. In this case the legend of the picture should face it so that the reader will have no occasion to look beyond the two pages when he has them before him. The printers of the sixteenth century, especially the Dutch, did not hesitate to send their pages through two presses, one the typographic press, and the other the roller press for copper-plate engravings. The results give us perhaps the best example that we have of things beautiful in themselves but unlovely in combination. As in the use of other ornamental features, there are no bounds to the use of illustration except that of fitness.

We have spoken of margins from the point of view of the page; from that of the closed book they appear as edges, and here they present several problems in the design of the book beautiful. If the book is designed correctly from the beginning, the margins will be of just the right width and the edges cannot be trimmed without making them too narrow. Besides, the untrimmed edges are witnesses to the integrity of the book; if any exception may be made, it will be in the case of the top margin, which may be gilded both for beauty and to make easy the removal of dust. But the top should be rather shaved than trimmed, so that the margin may not be visibly reduced. The gilding of all the edges, or “full gilt,” is hardly appropriate to the book beautiful, though it may be allowed in devotional books, especially those in limp binding, and its effect may there be heightened by laying the gilt on red or some other color. Edges may be goffered, that is, decorated with incised or burnt lines, though the result, like tattooing, is more curious than ornamental. The edges may even be made to receive pictures, but here again the effect smacks of the barbaric.

We have now gone over our subject in the large. To pursue it with all possible degrees of minuteness would require volumes. William Morris, for instance, discusses the proper shape for the dot of the i; and even the size of the dot and its place above the letter are matters on which men hold warring opinions. We have not even raised the question of laid or wove paper, nor of the intermixture of different series or sizes of types. In short, every phase of the subject bristles with moot points, the settlement of one of which in a given way may determine the settlement of a score of others.

But what is the use to the public of this knowledge and enjoyment of ours? Is it not after all a fruitless piece of self-indulgence? Surely, if bookmaking is one of the minor arts, then the private knowledge and enjoyment of its products is an element in the culture of the community. But it is more than that; it is both a pledge and a stimulus to excellence in future production. Artists in all fields are popularly stigmatized as a testy lot irritabile genus but their techiness does not necessarily mean opposition to criticism, but only to uninformed and unappreciative criticism, especially if it be cocksure and blatant. There is nothing that the true artist craves so much not even praise as understanding of his work and the welcome that awaits his work in hand from the lips of “those who know.” Thus those who appreciate and welcome the book beautiful, by their encouragement help to make it more beautiful, and so by head and heart, if not by hand, they share in the artist’s creative effort. Also, by thus promoting beauty in books, they discourage ugliness in books, narrowing the public that will accept ugly books and lessening the degree of ugliness that even this public will endure. Finally, it seems no mere fancy to hold that by creating the book beautiful as the setting of the noblest literature, we are rendering that literature itself a service in the eyes of others through the costly tribute that we pay to the worth of the jewel itself.