Eric and I began our friendship because of a book. It was one of those ’70s Star Trek paperbacks. Since then both he and I have perpetually crammed our living spaces full of other books. Vivian occasionally tries to cull the herd, as it were, but I’m agin it.
Thus it was appropriate that today we worked our way from Pioneer Square back up to Pike Place Market and thence to Capitol Hill, my ‘hood, by way of bookstores and one book bindery.
Vivian and I are having an 1868 American edition of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words rebound as a gift for Viv’s best friend, a piano teacher. I was surprised to learn that genuinely old lithographed scores, such as those in this book, are quite inexpensive. The book, in fact, cost significantly less than the new binding; and you’ll generally find that antique bound music collections are very inexpensive. Much less, in fact, than prose books of similar vintages.
I suspect that this is a reflection of the relative incidence of literacy; many more persons can read transcriptions of spoken language than can read musical notation.
I find the valuations remarkable, particularly in light of the extremely elaborate frontispieces which have been common to music publication since at least the 1820’s. It’s a really interesting way to increase your personal exposure to antique book design, type, and illustration, especially if (as I do) you admire the frequently disparaged work of American commercial typographers and typesetters of the nineteenth century.
When we walked into the bindery, I immediately noticed not one but two 13 by 10 inch 4-inch tall printer’s lithography stones, the foundation of industrial printing from just after the turn of the 19th century until around World War One. No longer produced, these stones were all quarried at one place, from the Solenhofen Limestone, in Germany.
Science geeks will recognize this as the place which yielded archeoptryx, the dino-bird which is regarded as the best evidence of the link between dinosaurs and birds. Archeoptryx is also the reason that the stones are no longer milled. The deposit which the stones were taken from was desirable for lithography because of its’ perfectly even grain and the ease with which it could be worked. The process was partly invented in Solenhofen because the stone was available.
The same conditions that produced that perfect grain – consistent settling of silt without disturbance for centuries – also, necessarily, created conditions perfect for incredible preservation of fossils. Archeoptryx is important not only for the morphological features it shares with dinosaurs and birds, but also for the fact that the fossil’s original soft organic matter was cast, as well as its’ bones: you can see the animal’s feathers.
When alternative plate material, such as plastics and steel, became available for use in lithography printing (still the primary method for commercial printed material production today), mining of the deposits for the production of further litho stones was forbidden. The litho stones of Solenhofen became heirlooms of a vanished technology, so that the trove of fossils secreted and remaining might tell us new stories of the deep past.
Thus, the stone which helped to build mass publishing and therefore literate culture and all its attendant benefits (and comp/aints) is now more deeply precious by dint of simple physical rarity and the even more rare fossils the stones hold within their hearts. Perhaps Daumier’s celebrated “Murders in the Rue Morgue” was drawn upon a stone that holds with in it an even more perfect specimen of Archeoptryx.
To find these stones, holding dual significance of the heritage of nature and culture, employed in the shop of an antiquarian book bindery made my visit there distinctly pleasant. In the bindery, the stones are used as a cutting surface for the leather being prepared in the bindings.
The craft of the shop, of course, carries information forward from the past in two discrete ways itself. By repairing old and worn bindings for antique books, the information in the old books becomes more accessible itself; and the craft of the shop per se is an information vector from pre-industrial times.
The heritage of deep archeological time; the heritage of the book itself, predating printing; the heritage of the antique book from the inscribed manuscript to the introduction of flexible-plate lithography; and the heritage of printing, of widely reproduced knowledge and art, all were represented before me in that tiny craftsman’s shop. I stood and smiled in this knowledge.