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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Review: The Girl Who Beat ISIS by Farida Khalaf

The Girl Who Beat ISISAuthor: Farida Khalaf with Andrea C. Hoffman (trans. from German by Jamie Bulloch)
Title: The Girl Who Beat ISIS (The Girl Who Escaped ISIS in the US)
Format/Source: Paperback/Library
Published: July 2016
Publisher: Square Peg
Length: 204 pages
Genre: Memoir
Why I Read: Spotted in ‘new and noted’ at the library
Rating: ★★★★
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I read The Girl Who Beat ISIS in one sitting. Farida Khalaf (not her real name, nor is she the girl depicted on the cover) has an unfathomable story to share. For me, her story is unfathomable because I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be enslaved as she was, torn from family, knowing her fathers and brothers had been murdered and the rest of her family likely lost to her. Khalaf, 18 at the time of her enslavement, manages to eventually escape her captors, rescuing with her five younger girls. She beats ISIS by defying their grasp, but not before suffering what so many other Yazidi women have suffered. While reading Khalaf’s story, I desperately hoped that girl who fought who so stubbornly and held to her values would escape the sexual assault that she is rightly terrified of. Though her tale ends on a positive note, she endures atrocious torment at the hands of her captors. Khalaf has a difficult story to share. A note from Khalaf’s co-author at the end of the book details how they came to document her story, and how painful it was for Khalaf. I applaud Khalaf for finding the strength to share her story.

I became familiar with the plight of the Yazidis primarily through Khalaf’s story. I had heard the word and I knew they were a minority group, but I didn’t know much about the horrors they experienced. A very brief introduction for those like me: The Yazidis are an ethnically Kurdish religious group living primarily in Iraq, where they are a minority. ISIS has been committing genocide against the Yazidis since 2014. (See below for links to more information.) Shortly after finishing the book, I learnt about the Canadian government’s commitment to resettle 1,200 Yazidi refugees this year. Recently, I have read reporting from the CBC that describes the journeys and hopes of some of those refugees, including a nine-member family that arrived in my city. Khalaf’s book illuminates the plight of her people. I can read her story and think about the Yazidis who have come so far to escape the horror Khalaf experienced, and hopefully find a better life as my neighbour. It’s difficult and painful to realize that the genocidal atrocities which ISIS inflicts on the Yazidis are occurring right now. In sharing her story, Khalaf gives us a valuable window into her world.

The Bottom Line:

The Girl Who Beat ISIS offers a gut-wrenching look into the experiences of a young Yazidi woman enslaved by ISIS. Khalaf’s first person narration gives the reader a personal, human connection to the Yazidi genocide.

Further Reading:

  • UN human rights panel concludes ISIL is committing genoicde agains the Yazidis (2016 new release from the UN)
  • ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape (2015 article by The New York Times)
  • Canada to bring in 1,200 primarily Yazidi refugees by year end (2017 article by The Star)
  • Read the first chapter
  • Review @ The Guardian

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This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

Review: You Will Not Have My Hate by Antoine Leiris

You Will Not Have My HateAuthor: Antoine Leiris (trans. Sam Taylor)
Title: You Will Not Have My Hate
Format/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: October 2016
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 129 pages
Genre: Memoir
Why I Read: Read an excerpt
Rating: ★★★★
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In November 2015, Antoine Leiris’s wife Hélène was killed in the attack on the Bataclan Theatre. Their son Melvil was 17 months old at the time. You Will Not Have My Hate, a slim volume of Leiris’s reflections on the time immediately following the shooting (particularly the impact on Melvil, not yet old enough to understand), is a devastating yet hopeful read. I first read an excerpt of this book in the October 2016 issue of Vogue. I immediately knew I had to read the rest. The title stems from an open letter Leiris wrote to the terrorists who perpetrated the attack. This memoir contextualizes that letter.

If you have read the letter, you will know that Leiris’s book is not really about terrorism or the attack. His letter says all he needs to about that. The book digs deeper into grief and how to keep going, especially when a little one needs you. Leiris’s beautiful writing might break your heart. (Sam Taylor translated the book from French; I assume he’s done an excellent job.) I nearly forgot it wasn’t fiction (because how can this be real, how can someone have to experience this, how can they translate it into words?). I could have selected any passage from the book to demonstrate this. Here’s a bit about viewing Hélène in the mortuary:

“I cry, I talk to her. I would to stay another hour, at least a day, perhaps a lifetime. But I must leave her. The moon must set. Today, November 16, the sun rises on our new ‘once upon a time.’ The story of a father and a son who go on living alone, without the aid of the star to whom they swore allegiance.” (40-41)

The book clocks in at just 129 pages. I estimate nearly half to be blank space, though this blank space is certainly not wasted space. This needs to be a small story, a contained story, otherwise it is too overwhelming. The blank space allows for breathing room. That little bit of space you need to pause and reflect and process. A photo at the end – of Hélène standing outdoors, looking lovely, holding Melvil snuggled against her breast – made me gasp. What a punch that photo packs after reading Antoine’s tale.

The Bottom Line:

A short yet devastating read, Antoine Leiris’s You Will Not Have My Hate gives the reader a glimpse into what it’s like to tragically and unexpectedly lose someone.

Further Reading:

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Family Reads: Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Why we chose Lawrence Hill’s Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On being black and white in Canada

Black Berry, Sweet Juice - Family ReadsWe had tried reading two novels about Ireland for this month’s Family Reads. Unfortunately, we found both novels to be incredibly dull. I asked Mom if there were any books by authors she liked that she hadn’t yet read. That’s how we ended up on Lawrence Hill’s author page. Mom has read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, The Illegal and Blood. I knew virtually nothing about growing up biracial in Canada. Thus, we chose Black Berry, Sweet Juice for our January Family Read.

In BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE, Hill movingly reveals his struggle to understand his own personal and racial identity. Raised by human rights activist parents in a predominantly white Ontario suburb, he is imbued with lingering memories and offers a unique perspective. In a satirical yet serious tone, Hill describes the ambiguity involved in searching for his identity – an especially complex and difficult journey in a country that prefers to see him as neither black nor white.

Interspersed with slices of his personal experiences, fascinating family history and the experiences of thirty-six other Canadians of mixed race interviewed for this book, BLACK BERRY, SWEET JUICE also examines contemporary racial issues in Canadian society.

Our Discussion

Hill explores how one’s personal identity can differ from the external identity thrust upon them by those looking at them from the outside. Hill writes about how people are judged by their skin colour as to what their identity is. But that, of course, is a dangerous and often wrong assumption to make. A person’s internal understanding of their identity might not have anything to do with their skin colour.

Hill’s book was an eye opener for Mom and I. We are White in every direction I can see on the family tree. We’ve never had to think about the possible discord between our identities and our skin colours. We’ve never had to think, “Oh, I’m White, I need to make a concentrated effort to connect with the White community, learn about my cultural identity, etc”. We are just that way, we are just White and we don’t have to do anything in particular to confirm that. In contrast, Hill and the people he interviews have all had to give conscious consideration, in one way or another, to their racial/cultural identity.

Hill writes about a “brewing interest in my racial identity” (64). This quote stuck out to me, as I’ve never had to ‘brew an interest’ in my racial identity. Mom and I can’t fathom what it must be like to have to actively learn about racial identity, cultural history, etc. Mom pointed out that she has never considered herself ‘German-Canadian’ (her father came to Canada when he was 19 years old). She has never had to assert that aspect of her identity or consider it in the way that biracial Canadians do. She and I have never had to ‘choose’ to be White, i.e. choose to fit in with that community – that’s the White privilege we have.

The Question

Towards the end of the book, Hill presents an imaginary dialogue of the ‘race’ question, an infamously pervasive question in Canada (and similar countries, I imagine):

STRANGER: “Do you mind my asking where you are from?” [This is code for “What is your race?”]

ME: “Canada.” [This is code for “Screw off.”]

STRANGER: “Yes, but you know, where are you really from?” [This is code for “You know what I mean, so why are you trying to make me come out and say it?”]

ME: “I come from the foreign and distant metropolis of Newmarket. That’s Newmarket, Ontario. My place of birth. [Code for “I’m not letting you off the4 hook, buster.”]

STRANGER: “But your place of origin? Your parents? What are your parents?” [Code for “I want to know your race, but this is making me very uncomfortable because somehow I feel that I’m not supposed to ask that question.”]

Mom and I discussed how that question, “Where are you from?”, takes on a completely different tone depending on who it is presented to. If someone asks us (my White Mom or I) where are you from, we generally know they mean it literally. If they want to know our family background, they ask directly. It’s not a challenge; usually it’s just polite conversation. Rarely is that question asked of a person of colour for the sake of polite conversation. As Hill notes, it becomes a challenge to a person’s Canadian identity (177). Part of our White privilege is never having people challenge our Canadian identities.

Many Experiences

Hill’s stories about growing up biracial added another dimension to his exploration of race, as we had not considered the identity struggles a biracial child may experience. Mom told me about a friend with a biracial daughter. Mom had never considered that that child may have difficult time growing up because of the different racial identities of her parents.

We appreciated that Hill includes interviews with a number of other Black-White biracial Canadians. Sharing various points of views shows that everyone’s situation can be different. There is no ‘one size fits all’ answer to the question of how to manage a biracial identity. Black Berry, Sweet Juice really hits home that a single voice cannot an entire community represent. Nearly all interviewees, however, understand they will almost always struggle with being defined against Whiteness. Because White people do not consider biracial people to be White, they cannot find acceptance in those communities like they may find acceptance in Black communities.

For many people with one black and one white parent, it appears to hurt more when we are rejected by the black community than when we are discriminated against in the wider community for being black (106).

“When white people look at you, they’re never going to see white. They’re always going to see black. Therefore you’re black.” (110)

Final Thoughts

Mom and I both learned a lot from this book. We highly recommend it, especially to White people who, like us, had never really considered how the experiences of biracial people may differ from those who are ‘all Black’ or ‘all White’.
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This review counts towards the Read Diverse 2017 challenge!

6 Books on Dying in Modern Times

This is a topic that has been cropping up in my life in unexpected areas. Physician-assisted suicide has been recently legalized in Canada, I taught about assisted suicide when I completed my ESL practicum last fall, and now I’ve unintentionally read three books on aging and dying that complement each other. I also remember being fascinated by this article (‘Why Doctors Die Differently’; I think it’s behind a paywall now) when it first appeared in 2012. I think the concept of how we die, or how we should die, in today’s day and age, captivates me because it’s something that affects literally everyone. Everyone goes through this eventually. Here are my thoughts on three books I’ve read and recommend, and suggestions of three more books I haven’t read yet.

Note the similar cover designs of these six books…

3 Books I’ve Read

 Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Of the six books featured in this post, Doughty’s explores what happens at the very end of the road, after a person has died. She took on a job in a crematorium when she was 23 years old, motivated by a somewhat morbid interest in death. She describes her work and all it entails, including some gruesome details you might rather not know about. Doughty goes beyond just sharing her experiences at the crematorium, however. She explores how we have developed an unhealthy and even unnatural relationship with death. We try to avoid it. We don’t know how to behave around a body, we don’t know our options for what to do with the body, we don’t know how to accept mortality. You’ll definitely learn a thing or two from Doughty, and hopefully come away with an improved (read: more positive) opinion about death.

Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine, and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
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Working a step backward from Doughty, we have Gawande’s book about how we live out our final days as we age. Gawande’s work as a surgeon and relationship with his dying father qualify his writing on the topic. He highlights the problems with widely spread and accepted systems of health care (such as depressing nursing homes and futile medical procedures), and explores alternatives to these systems. A great read that had me thinking a lot about how I’ll treat my parents when they are elderly.

Good Medicine: The Art of Ethical Care in Canada by Philip Hébert
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Good Medicine caught my eye because of the Canadian perspective. Similar to Gawande, Hebert makes his case through anecdotes about his own patients, commentary on publicly known cases, and his own experience with Parkinson’s. Hebert takes a more general approach than Gawande, focusing not only death in old age but general medical practices. (He writes about a different subject in each chapters – focuses include elderly care and physician-assisted suicide). Hébert emphasizes the importance and life-changing significance of doctors asking tough questions and of patients making their explicit wishes known before finding themselves in a tragic situation. This is a valuable book I hope more people read.

How much better it would be if we knew there were certain states in which each patient would not want to be kept alive, if hospitals asked patients, especially patients facing major surgery, clear and pointed questions in advance: If you were in a non-responsive or minimally responsive state, how would you want to be treated? If you also had only the remotest prospect of even partial recovery, would you wish to be kept going by expensive and prolonged measures? And what if, on account of that care, others were deprived of truly effective care? Would you still want to be kept alive? (107)

3 Books I Want to Read

 When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
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At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air […] chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality. What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present? What does it mean to have a child, to nurture a new life as another fades away? These are some of the questions Kalanithi wrestles with in this profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir.

A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Moments by Sandra Martin
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We can’t avoid death, but the prospect is a lot less terrifying since the Supreme Court of Canada legalized physician-assisted death. Competent adults, suffering grievously from intolerable medical conditions, will have the right to ask for a doctor’s help in ending their lives. That much is clear. The challenge now is to pass legislation that reflects this landmark decision and develop regulations that reconcile the Charter rights of both doctors and patients. If we get the balance right between compassion for the suffering and protection of the vulnerable, between individual choice and social responsibility, we can set an example for the world. A Good Death is timely, engaging and inspiring. In taking on our ultimate human right, award-winning journalist Sandra Martin charts the history of the right to die movement here and abroad through the personal stories of brave campaigners like Sue Rodriguez, Brittany Maynard and Gloria Taylor. Martin weighs the evidence from permissive jurisdictions such as the Netherlands, Oregon, California, Switzerland and Quebec and portrays her own intellectual and emotional journey through the tangled legal, medical, religious and political documentation concerning terminal sedation, slippery slopes, and the sanctity of life.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death by Katy Butler
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Katy Butler was living thousands of miles from her vigorous and self-reliant parents when the call came: a crippling stroke had left her proud seventy-nine-year-old father unable to fasten a belt or complete a sentence. Tragedy at first drew the family closer: her mother devoted herself to caregiving, and Butler joined the twenty-four million Americans helping shepherd parents through their final declines. Then doctors outfitted her father with a pacemaker, keeping his heart going but doing nothing to prevent his six-year slide into dementia, near-blindness, and misery. When he told his exhausted wife, “I’m living too long,” mother and daughter were forced to confront a series of wrenching moral questions. When does death stop being a curse and become a blessing? […] When doctors refused to disable the pacemaker, condemning her father to a prolonged and agonizing death, Butler set out to understand why. Her quest had barely begun when her mother took another path. Faced with her own grave illness, she rebelled against her doctors, refused open-heart surgery, and met death head-on. With a reporter’s skill and a daughter’s love, Butler explores what happens when our terror of death collides with the technological imperatives of medicine. Her provocative thesis is that modern medicine, in its pursuit of maximum longevity, often creates more suffering than it prevents.

Have you read any of these books? Is this a morbid topic or does it interest you?