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The amazing world of high-end book publishing

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  September 2, 2013 01:09 PM

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The biggest publishing houses in America still don't know what to do about Amazon, but at a rarefied end of the bookmaking world that you probably didn't know existed, business is still good.

The current issue of Harvard Magazine features a fascinating article by journalist Nathan Heller about Arion Press of San Francisco. Heller describes Arion as "the only full-service letterpress left in the United States." Put another way, Arion is the only publisher going that still makes books the way Gutenberg made books.

As Heller explains, the Arion headquarters contains an in-house foundry where lead is melted into ingots which are used to create individual letters. The process is no less labor intensive from there: Arion tradesmen (who come up through the ranks on the apprentice model) set some books completely by hand (and others with the aid of computer software), print the books on surfaces like "mold-made paper" imported from Germany, and handbind the volumes in materials like goatskin and mahogany. At the top end, the books retail for thousands of dollars (a 1988 edition of "Ulysses," with original art by abstract impressionist Robert Motherwell, sold for $7,500 before going out of print.)

What kinds of texts merit such sumptuous treatment? Poetry, in large part. The Harvard Magazine article was about the founder of Arion Press, 77-year-old Andrew Hoyem, and his decades-long association with Helen Vendler, the Harvard poetry critic. Together, they have created striking presentations of works by John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot, John Milton, Allen Ginsberg, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Wallace Stevens, the last of which was published in 1985 and contained original art by Jasper Johns. (Not all of Arion's titles are poetry. They've also released handcrafted editions of "The Big Sleep," "The Great Gatsby," "The Hound of the Baskervilles," " Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks," and the 1775 guide, "The Art of English Shooting," among the 97 titles they've put out over the last 29 years.)

In America, there is a high-end market in everything, books no less than automobiles and countertops, and one thing that makes Arion interesting is figuring out how to situate it: Is a $4,000 version of "Don Quixote," bound in three-piece goatskin, a luxury commodity like a Rolex, or a work of art whose price tag is just a vulgar proxy for its real value? The answer to that depends on how the editions transform the undeniably artistic texts they carry- whether "Moby-Dick" is more fully realized in handset Goudy Modern on dampened Barcham Green handmade paper than it is in free kilobytes on a Kindle.

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You can see the complete Arion Press catalogue here.

Images courtesy of ToniBird Photography.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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