The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is to Torontonian readers what Arcadia is to gardeners. From a dimly lit exhibition space, I felt in the company of every book that was or could ever be written. Strong in ten core subjects including philosophy and incunabula, Fisher’s seven-hundred thousand volumes make for a sublime sight.
The current exhibition is called A Death Greatly Exaggerated: Canada’s Thriving Small and Fine Press and runs through September 7th. Curated by John Shoesmith, Fisher’s Outreach Librarian, the displays have two primary goals. The first is to survey Canadian indie bookmakers since the year 2000. The second is to show why, after over 500 years of life, the printed book is here to stay. There are eight cases in all, each draped in the evening darkness that inspires so many to read.
Behind the first pane, Anansi and Coach House Books represent the origin of Canada’s literary press movement in the 1960s. As havens for developing authors, they supported early efforts by Matt Cohen, Anne Michaels and bpNichol, among many others. Behind the second, a folio of George Elliott Clarke’s Execution Poems (Gaspereau) stands regally before its young peers. Among them, Phil Hall’s Killdeer (BookThug) turns a bird’s name into a noun about vanity, and P.K. Page’s Alphabetical – Cosmologies (Poppy) imbues letters and numbers with mischievous biology.
Illustrated and artists’ books are highlighted by bookbinder Robert Wu. His skill on a 1930 edition of Jacques de Lacretelle’s Le Demi-Dieu, ou, Le Voyage en Grèce (Emile Chamontin) is beguiling. On the front cover, he depicts a Greek waterfront in Lacretelle’s French colors, buildings brash and haphazardly stacked in white alum taw. Like open books, birds pepper the skies and ocean in prehistoric formations.
Cases five and six introduce us to Mission, British Columbia’s Barbarian Press and their
offspring. As a teaching press, Barbarian takes apprentices and holds a six-day workshop every
June. They exhibit their 2010 edition of Shakespeare’s Pericles, a ten-year project illustrated by British wood-engraver Simon Brett. Produced with Elizabethan printing methods, the book exemplifies value without age. The smooth, uncanny pairing of the rarely performed text with one hundred original Brett engravings would run you over $5000.
The last cases cover micropresses and the self-published. Of special interest is a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Double Persephone (Hawkshead Press), her first published book, for which she hand-set and designed the cover in a 220-copy run.
Shoesmith explains the appeal of printed books as channels between mind and body. “Electronic books,” he says, “are surrogates to how a printed book feels, even how it smells. They contain the text of a book, but can’t approximate the immersive, almost sensuous experience of reading.” In other words, the physical details of printed books promote loss of self in stories. From cover texture, to artwork, down to the vanilla scent of lignin in the paper, aesthetics can sway you to forgo sleep to read another chapter instead of saving it for the morning.