Gutenberg’s Fingerprint – “Papers, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books”

Gutenberg's Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint by Merilyn Simonds

Format/Source: Hardcover/Publisher
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Rating: ★★★★
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Four seismic shifts have rocked human communication: the invention of writing, the alphabet, mechanical type and the printing press, and digitization. Poised over this fourth transition, e-reader in one hand, perfect-bound book in the other, Merilyn Simonds — author, literary maven, and early adopter — asks herself: what is lost and what is gained as paper turns to pixel?

Gutenberg’s Fingerprint trolls the past, present, and evolving future of the book in search of an answer. Part memoir and part philosophical and historical exploration, the book finds its muse in Hugh Barclay, who produces gorgeous books on a hand-operated antique letterpress. As Simonds works alongside this born-again Gutenberg, and with her son to develop a digital edition of the same book, her assumptions about reading, writing, the nature of creativity, and the value of imperfection are toppled.

In 2011, author Merilyn Simonds partnered with Hugh Barclay, the one-man wonder behind Thee Hellbox Press, to produce a limited run of The Paradise Project. Simonds agreed to the printing at Barclay’s urging. He wanted to print a collection of her short stories. Barclay introduces Simonds to the finer details of book printing, which she explores in Gutenberg’s Fingerprint. In following the development and creation of The Paradise Project, Simonds describes the history of book making. She also reflects on what has (and hasn’t) changed with the shift to digital books, as she and her son work on creating an ebook of the Paradise Project.

Four sections of the book focus on stages of a book’s creation – paper, type, ink, and press. Barclay is the star of these pages. His enthusiastic and creative personality bring the task to life. He is a tinkerer full of ideas, with the intelligence and ambition to bring those ideas to fruition. In Barclay’s small printing workshop, each stage is given careful consideration. What colour should the ink of be? What impression will the endpapers give? How will the type be set? How can images be incorporated?

Simonds explains the complexities that inventors throughout history had to be overcome to make each element work together and produce a legible book. Most of her exploration focuses on the print run of The Paradise Project. Simonds also includes comments to contrast the development of the ebook, a format which has both pros and cons over a printed book.  The Paradise Project sounds like a lovely work of art. I would to get my hands on a copy, to see and feel all the care that went into making it. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint includes a few black and white photographs, but they don’t do the work justice. You can view full colour images of the completed work at Thee Hellbox Press website.

Simonds delves further into reflection in the final two sections, “Book” and “Lasting Impressions”. I found her balanced view of ebooks refreshing. Simonds loves her physical books, as many of us book lovers do, but she does not deny the advantages of ebooks. She goes beyond acknowledging the practicalities of digital reading (such as being able to carry numerous books or customize the formatting for reading comfort). For example, she notes that more voices in publishing (via digital self-publishing) cannot be a negative thing. She discusses the potential of ebooks to make a wider variety of stories available to a wider variety of people. Simonds quotes Kamila Shamsie:

Are we hearing all the complex, nuanced human voices we need to help us understand our own times, our fellow citizens, the world in which we live? No. But we could. And we must. And that should be publishing’s bottom line. (341)

Yet physical books (for Simonds, at least) easily win in the debate about superiority. I have never heard someone put it so clearly or simply than when she writes, “We are more than brains: we have ears, noses, fingertips, all of which engage with a physical book” (351). What sparks that particular feeling of joy we may find when we gaze happily at our bookshelves?

My books are my brain and my heart made visible. (366)

The Bottom Line:

Simonds chronicles the exquisite print run and ebook development of her short story collection The Paradise ProjectGutenberg’s Fingerprints gives book lovers food for thought as to what it is we love about physical books and what digital books have to offer us. Simonds leaves no doubt that print books will likely endure, but does leave room to ponder – what may come next?

Further Reading:

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  • This sounds fascinating. I don’t read ebooks, though I can see the benefits, particularly for travel. I just love the tangibility–the look, feel, and smell–that a physical book brings to the reading experience. Something is lost for me when a book is read in digital format. I realize it’s different for everyone but I think I will always stick with physical books.

    • I totally agree. The only time I read ebooks is when I’ve got an ARC or, as you mentioned, when I’m travelling (and even then only for long term travel, when bringing just five books along won’t satisfy the whole trip :P), but it’s just not as satisfying as reading a physical book.