The twelfth of April, 2011: repeating what we all know

Aldous Huxley on printing:

Machines exist: let us then exploit them to create beauty – a modern beauty, while we are about it. For we live in the twentieth century; let us frankly admit it and not pretend that we live in the fifteenth. The work of the backward-looking hand-printers may be excellent in its way; but its way is not the contemporary way. Their books are often beautiful, but with a borrowed beauty expressive of nothing in the world in which we happen to live.

They are also, as it happens, so expensive, that only the very rich can afford to buy them. The printer who makes a fetish of hand-work and medieval craftsmanship, who refuses to tolerate the machine or to make any effort to improve the quality of its output, thereby condemns the ordinary reader to a perpetuity of ugly printing. As an ordinary reader, who cannot afford to buy hand-made books, I object to the archaizing printer. It is only from the man with the machine that I can hope for any amelioration of my lot as a reader.

Good points (and it’s true, by the way, that Huxley was a fairly ordinary reader, financially speaking: he left just over £14,000 in his will). That’s from Huxley’s introduction to Printing of Today, O. Simon and J. Rodenberg (Harper & Bros, 1928). He goes on to explain how the printer is compelled to be unoriginal (‘He must content himself with refining on the ordinary, accepted terms of commerce’). Huxley suggests that we ‘read too much and too easily’ (a point made elsewhere in Clutterbuck by Karel Capek), but concludes that ‘it is the author’s business to make reading less facile, not the printer’s’.

If the author concentrated more matter into the same number of sentences, his readers would have to read more carefully than they do at present.

I quite agree. The point about originality brought to mind a typically sage observation from Saul Bellow:

It is sometimes necessary to repeat what we all know. All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location, and avoid originality.

That’s from Mr Sammler’s Planet (1969).


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