Searching for the Whale
[This is a complementary post to my guest article on Books & Vines – which can be found over here (a mirrored copy can be found here). If you’re interested in fine press books at all, you would do well by visiting Books & Vines frequently.]
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is one of the greatest works of literature ever written and there have been several editions produced over the years. As with everything else when there are multiple options, it becomes a matter of taste as to which edition you prefer to read. In some cases, it goes beyond taste and goes into issues such as translations, footnotes, typos, or even material that has been cut and re-added.
As Moby-Dick is an American work and written in English, we don’t have to worry about translation issues. However, the work itself does have some issues with the material being deleted (not on purpose) or with the language needing to be updated slightly. The first edition was printed in England, and that edition left out the Epilogue, containing critical material for the story itself, thus, the English critics penned bad reviews of the work based on the needed information being left out of this edition. The American edition soon followed, but most American critics simply followed in lockstep with the English critics and provided Moby-Dick with nearly universal poor reviews from the critics of its time.
Being a neophyte to the world of fine press books and all the knowledge that entails, I set off to write a guest article for Chris Adamson’s superb Books & Vines blog. My original subject was on some books produced by the Rowfant Club, a Cleveland-Ohio based male bibliophile society. I rediscovered the great joy of searching and finding accessible editions of the rare books I was searching for.
Copies of the Rowfant publications I was seeking out were available at The Ohio State University’s Rare Books & Manuscripts Reading Room at their superb library. An appointment was quickly made and the books were reserved for my research. After I completed my original project, knowing that they had an Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick, I inquired about the possibility of viewing their copy. To my great surprise and pleasure, the book was fetched from its resting place and brought out for my review.
Before I proceed further, I would like to note that my article on the Arion Press edition of Moby-Dick can be viewed over at Books & Vines. Please go and read that article if you’d like an in-depth look at this book. I would also like to note the following items before proceeding further:
[I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the Ohio State University Libraries, the Arion Press, and Andrew Hoyem for granting me permission to feature this edition of Moby-Dick.
Moby-Dick photographs courtesy of the Rare Books and Manuscripts collection of The Ohio State University Libraries. Written copyright permission to feature these photos granted by Andrew Hoyem of Arion Press. My thanks to all involved, especially Mr. Hoyem, the publisher of this edition of Moby-Dick.]
The mammoth size of the book when I first glimpsed it was readily apparent as it eclipsed the librarian’s entire chest as he was cradling it. When I finally got my hands onto the volume, its heft was immediately apparent. The second thing I noticed was how well the book and slipcase had held up over the years, considering that it’s older than I am! When I slid the book out of its protective casing, I noticed that part of the slipcase had a minor portion of blue coloring on its interior due to rubbing from the blue leather cover over the years (visible in the photograph below – look at the interior edges):
The leather itself has remained soft and supple with no hint of aging. In fact, I imagine it looks no worse for the wear from its original condition. The spine’s gilt titling was done in silver to match the subject matter of the book and despite some fading, it appears that the slipcase’s original color was intended to be a sky-blue tone of color. This intentional contrast of the shades of blue allows the book and slipcase to together evoke an image of the sea itself. The slipcase is showing its age a little bit but has held up remarkably well over the years as well.
The binding still wanted to close when I opened up Moby-Dick, the covers struggling to swallow the rich handmade paper. The texture of the paper itself rivals every other tactile sensation that I’ve ever felt. It probably would be worth buying this book for the paper alone, much less the brilliantly imprinted shapes and letters that the book houses, and I’m not just talking about Melville’s novel here!
Gently turning the pages, the title page finally came into view, and you could see the copyright notice reverse-imprinted onto the page itself, creating that rich contrast you only get from deep impressions produced by the letterpress method:
Title Page of the Arion Press Moby-Dick (1979)
As I sat there, I lapped up every detail I possibly could. The major difference between the original and any lithographically reproduced copy you’re able to view is the inclusion of the blue ink color. And of course, there simply is no comparison between the quality of the paper used in this edition and every other edition. And the letterpress method creates such a tactile experience that cannot be replicated except by letterpress itself.
Looking at the title page again, I noted that I was finally looking at an original copy of the well-used photo used on the Internet to illustrate copies for sale. The Melville engraving was crisply imprinted into the paper, with the richness of the black color ‘popping’ out. The detail and labor that went into producing this magnificent book was readily apparent, and that’s when it sunk in that I was actually handling this objet d’art.
As I turned the page, other elements of the design captured my attention. Look, there’s the Leviathan drop-cap typography. And yes, there’s that stunning engraving of a tsunami wave. Barry Moser really did a number on that one. The tactile feel of the words on the pages, being literally stamped and the embossing of the next page’s words bring in small ridges for my fingertips to run over. Mountains, valleys, and it repeats page after page. It’s impossible to get tired of such an explosion of visual, tactile, and aesthetic pleasure.
Beautiful stunning typography and design fill every page, from the engravings by Barry Moser to even the gaps left around those engravings for the words to flow around them. Finally, I opened a random page and the book chose to fall open at the magnificent full-page engraving of the great whale himself. Great swathes of black lines provide texture and a depth to the book itself that wouldn’t have been possible without the full-page image. I flipped through the book’s pages faster and faster, forgetting everything that I had come for.
Finally, I hit the epilogue and then I turned the page to the colophon. Reflecting upon all the people that participated in the making of this book, I turned that page to reveal a blank page. I had finally flipped through the last of the printed pages. But as I turned that blank page over, the light danced across the page to reveal a shimmer of a shape. So I took a closer look.
And there he was, the White Whale. He had been taunting me all along. I finally remembered what I had come to find in Moby-Dick. It was an important detail that I immediately forgot about once I was struck by the book’s beauty. It’s a subtle thing, but to intentionally design and include this feature is a masterstroke. Every page in this book has been handmade to feature a whale watermark. The white whale himself resides on every page, and he’s literally white because there’s a very light slate-grey/bluish hue to the paper itself, which increased my appreciation for the complete design of this book.
In that moment of realization, my pursuit of the ephemeral had finally concluded. I had found Moby-Dick. Brilliant!
When you consider the amount of labor and love that went into creating this edition, it’s no wonder that the Arion Press Moby-Dick is among the greatest fine-press books ever created. And despite catching the great white whale, my pursuit of the ephemeral continues with a new target. Moby-Dick, you won’t be forgotten. And you shall always remain lurking on these pages: