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American Literature 75.4 (2003) 875-876
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Megan Benton's Beauty and the Book examines the vogue for fine printing in the years between the First World War and the Depression. Drawing on printers' archives, book reviews, memoirs, correspondence, and the bibliographical analysis of 300 fine editions, Benton describes how lavish materials and painstaking production methods were yoked to equally extravagant hopes that well-designed and well-made books would refine the taste of a consumerist nation. Fine printing emerges in this study as a contrarian endeavor, an anachronistic devotion to the hand press in the machine-press era. Fine printers conspicuously underused the capacity of the press in order to produce limited editions and studiously avoided the implication that they profited through sales, distributing their books through quasi-private channels to an elite audience. Benton calls attention to the many contradictions that threatened the ideological coherence of this movement and the credibility of the fine printers themselves, describing how mechanized typography was responsible for the recovery of period typefaces designed to evoke the hand-press era and how "the hand production standard that most commercial fine printers exalted was only loosely and partially descriptive of actual practices" (64). Despite her damning conclusion that the values of handcraft were most often—because most easily—conveyed through conspicuous elements of design rather than through hand production, Benton entertains a surprising degree of sympathy for fine printers' self-serving accounts of their social mission. Torn between a respect for the workmanship and ideals of fine printers and a desire to demystify their inflated claims, Benton leaves much of her critique to be inferred, relating anecdotes about printers who wax eloquent about the values of handcraft but cannot compose a line of type, or who hijack artisanal ideals for luxury consumption and exploit a surprisingly robust market for anticommercialism.
Some of Benton's ambivalence toward the fine editions she examines may be traced to her mode of analysis, in that fine printing represents a limit case [End Page 875] for the history-of-the-book methods she employs. As Benton explains, fine editions frequently became monuments to the printing arts that disregarded, obscured, or evacuated their contents; they were extravagant productions that required lavish expenditures on materials in an escalating search for distinction. Value was thought to inhere in features such as custom type, elaborate illustration, handmade paper, and printers' watermark signatures, and not in the texts themselves, which were, after all, familiar enough to be ignored. As Bob Grabhorn remarked of the celebrated Grabhorn Press edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass: "[O]f course you're not going to read [it]" (114). As an interdisciplinary field devoted to analyzing the mediation of culture by historically specific practices of textual production and reception, book history is not well equipped to handle books that are indifferent to their own content; an analysis of the materiality of fine editions can describe but not explain them. While Benton deftly integrates bibliographical analysis with a social and cultural history of fine printing, she repeatedly runs up against the limitations of her subject. Books that have slight regard for their contents have to be about something else; Benton needs to reach beyond the self-enclosed world of fine printing to discern these editions' larger cultural significance. Some promising avenues of inquiry that Benton outlines but does not pursue include fine printers' close links with advertising, suggesting parallel developments in elite and popular design; the early-twentieth-century taste for the ersatz; and the postwar expansion of democratically available luxury objects. Perhaps the most enduring set of questions raised by Benton's sharp-eyed account of the discrepancy between fine printers' ideals and their practices has to do with the book's remarkable ability to embody resistance to commercialism and durability through time: how is it that machine-produced, skillfully marketed, luxury commodities still manage to convey antimodernist values...