Pictorial Webster’s and the art of making a beautiful book

You never know where an obsession may be lurking. John Carerra found his under his grandfather’s reading chair. It was a tattered Webster’s International Dictionary (1898 edition), and “in the back were ganged together and printed all of the wonderful images printed in the book, a little universe of nineteenth century America. Little did I know I was about to devote the next ten years of my life to organizing and printing four thousand of these little blocks.”

My 1913 edition of Webster's

Like Carerra’s grandfather’s 1898 Webster’s, my 1913 edition includes a section in the back that presents all the illustrations grouped by categories. (Detail below.)

The eight-minute video above has been online for three years, but I discovered it only recently thanks to Science Dump. In the video we watch a very beautiful book being printed on fine paper in a vintage printing press, and then hand sewn and bound in leather by people who have mastered the skills of a bygone era.

Merriam-Webster Company gave these engravings to Yale University in 1977. Two decades later, Carerra spent most of a year categorizing the engraving blocks, of which he estimates there are about 13,000. He selected his favorites for his book Pictorial Webster’s.

Carrera is deeply interested in the engravings themselves, and how together they tell stories — not just a story of what was important to nineteenth century Americans, but also a story of whatever it is that you make of them through your mind’s own associations. As he says on the Quercus Press website:

The Pictorial Webster’s is not to be understood as mere visual reference. I believe a person instinctively tries to find the connection between things when they are grouped together, and so when confronted by combinations of two or more images the mind looks for a link to give their grouping meaning. My hope is readers will “read the text” by relaxing their minds in studying the pages to allow their subconscious-ness to supply the connective meaning between images. The key-words at the tops of the pages might supply a theme to a reader, or merely be worked into one’s own narrative. In this way the book becomes a true surrealist experience.

In other words, this isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, or even necessarily of history. Carrera has transformed these purely utilitarian images into art.

But it was the making of the book itself that initially drew me to the video. As Carrera narrates, we watch him setting up the type and working his 1938 Model A Linotype machine. We see the binding being stitched by hand, the pasting up of spines and trimming of edges, the leather being pasted to boards, and the hand-tooling of the covers using real gold leaf and a small letterpress.

This post is not going to be a lament of the way that books are made today. Inexpensive printing is one of the great democratizers of knowledge (as is the Web). And the Quercus Press leather-bound edition is a bit on the spendy side: $3,500, or $4,600 if you must have one with hand-cut finger tabs. Worth every penny, no doubt, but well out of my budget. There’s also a trade edition (neither handmade nor leather-bound) for $35, which I’d seriously consider if I didn’t already have my 1913 Webster’s.

Detail from 1913 Webster's.

Detail from 1913 Webster’s.

Still, in our automated world, there’s a deep pleasure in observing the physical skill of a traditional trade. We’ve been tool-makers and tool-users for a long, long time and think there’s something primal about watching a demonstration of skillful construction by hand.

And to see craftsmanship married to that most wonderful of human inventions — the book — is a double treat. The book itself becomes a sensory experience. On video we can only see it, but the owner can touch it, feel the texture of the leather and the stiffness of the pages, hear the rustle of fingers on paper as the pages turn, and smell that fine book smell that will only improve with age.

(Update, Oct. 18, 2013: the Vimeo video disappeared, but I found it on YouTube and re-embedded.)

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