March 12

Porter Garnett "Philosophical Writings on the Ideal Book" Compiled by Jack Stauffacher, published by the Book Club of California, 1994

Porter Garnett "Philosophical Writings on the Ideal Book" Compiled by Jack Stauffacher, published by the Book Club of California, 1994

“There is no such thing nor can there be such a thing as ‘the ideal book.'” So began an essay on the ideal book, written by Porter Garnett, of the School of Printing at Carnegie Institute of Technology and founder of the Laboratory Press. He was born on March 12, 1869 in San Francisco.

After a thirty-year career as editor and writer in the Bay area, Garnett went to Pittsburgh to establish a course in fine printing. Here, according to Carl Rollins, “a selected group of young men, turning their back on the complexities of typesetting machines and printing machines, which clattered and whirred on the other side of the partition, worked diligently with hand-set type and hand press to produce a series of broadsides and folders ‘as the old printers printed long ago.’ ”

When the Limited Editions Club offered a prize for the best essay on the ideal book, a distinguished jury consisting of Frederic W. Goudy, Mitchell Kennerley, Frederic G. Melcher, A. Edward Newton, and George Macy went through two hundred entries and agreed to present a joint prize to Garnett and Francis P. Dill. It turned out that Mr. Dill was one of Porter Garnett’s students, which made the award unique.

Everything that Garnett stood for as a craftsman and as a teacher finds expression in his essay on the ideal book. The fact that he was a purist detracts not at all from what he set out to do and what he accomplished with the Laboratory Press. The students who took his course have since continued in their own professional lives the strong sense of idealism to which the closing years of Garnett’s career were devoted.

“It is difficult,” he wrote, “to declare one-self an advocate of fine printing or fine book-design without being misunderstood. Such a declaration, however, is not to arrogate superiority. It merely means that one believes in certain principles of craftsmanship and in upholding certain standards based upon a scrupulous and uncompromising observance of refinements and minutiae. . . .

“A fine book of the first order is the end-result of a sedulous effort on the part of designer, printer, and binder to bring to their artifact every care for physical and technical details, every revision in the interest of betterment, of which they are capable, to the end that the finished product shall represent the capacity of each for the fulfillment of his artistic wish, his desire for perfection. To slacken this effort, to compromise wittingly (or wilfully), to surrender to expediency, is to repudiate fineness of the first order. . . .

“It has not been my purpose in this paper to lay down the rules for making a fine book, for, after all, rules are of no use whatever (in an art or in a craft) except to be broken—wisely. . . . Let those who wish to compromise (with popular taste, with outlay and returns, with honesty, with self-respect, or with machinery) do so, but unless the thing they produce represents, with eloquence and beauty, the full and unconditional employment of every realizable aid to betterment, physical and technical, it is something other than a fine book of the first order. We must discourage ourselves in order that we may be strong.”

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