The State of the Book and Ari’s Thoughts on Books

The State of the Book

This Saturday, October 6th, 10 am-7 pm the University of Michigan will co-host a literary symposium called The State of the Book at Rackham Auditorium. Free to the public, this event will focus on Michigan writers in partnership with several nonprofit literary organizations. The schedule of events is absolutely stellar. Come for all or part of the day, and be sure to pay a visit to Zingerman’s Press when you do. We’ll be at the Book Fair in the lobby. See you there!

Thoughts on Books

In honor of the State of the Book event coming up, we thought it’d be fun to post an excerpt from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading Part 2, A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Being a Better Leader. Enjoy!

You don’t need to be much of a futurist to forecast that in the coming years old-style books are likely to fall ever further behind electronic media in terms of everyday importance. I should know—I never go anywhere other than jogging, to the beach, or to bed without bringing my computer. I know a lot of people have already written books off as old-fashioned and unnecessary baggage, justly jettisoned in the interest of easier access to information. When you add in iPads, smart phones, video games, DVDs, YouTube, Facebook, ebooks, and whatever else someone out in Silicon Valley invents in the coming decades,  it might well be that paper is practically a thing of the past. I hope not, though. Business and leadership aside, I do have a case to make for bound books.

Interestingly, although books had nothing in particular to do with their politics, the anarchists were all about putting things into print in artful and aesthetically pleasing ways. Many had a serious love of learning, literature, poetry, and prose. Emma Goldman regularly spoke and wrote about theater, and the list of writers and artists who associated with anarchists is long and prestigious. Anarchist books were often as interesting for their art as for the intellectual activity inside: drawings, woodcuts, and etchings abound.

Some of the most amazing of the anarchist work was put out by Joseph Ishill and his Oriole Press. A Romanian Jewish immigrant to the United States, he published over 200 pamphlets and books on his hand-cranked press in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. Many were small chapbooks of poetry and the like, but some were more substantial collections—300- or 400-page tributes to the anarchists, anarchist ideas, artists, and free thinkers he knew and held in high esteem. The two volumes of Free Vistas he produced—the first in 1933 and the next in 1937—are truly some of the most beautiful books I’ve ever seen. They’re definitely about anarchism, but they’re also incredible works of art. Each was printed, by hand, in very limited editions—less than 300 copies. Each volume includes a dozen types of paper, each of different textures, colors, and sizes, all bound together into very beautiful books. Each edition has a goodly number of remarkable woodcuts and sketches, woven in with articles, essays, politics, and poetry. To say they are amazing is an understatement—if you’re into books, I’d make the trip to Ann Arbor just to go see them in the Labadie Collection on the seventh floor of the Graduate Library.

While I’ve certainly read old anarchist work online—working on the web is great when I’m in a hurry, and it’s a lot faster to copy and paste than it is to retype the parts that I want to transcribe—I still would far rather read it all in the original. When I look at the copy on the computer I feel a little like I’m reading a half step or so removed. There’s just something to be said for holding the paper, the same, slightly weathered and worn pages that someone, maybe not unlike me, might well have held in their hands a hundred years ago. Emma Goldman’s essays certainly read fine and for free online, but, for me at least, the spirit is far more sensually present when I actually hold my well-worn copy of her pamphlet, “The Place of the Individual in Society,” in my hand.

It’s with that sort of stuff in mind that, three years ago, we made the move at Zingerman’s to go back to putting out our own books—to, as author Hugh MacLeod admonished, “ignore everybody” and move away from the big, not-so-much-fun (for me at least) world of mass-market publishing and go our own way. It wasn’t a snap decision. When I’d opted to do a couple of books with mainstream publishers earlier on, I made that move mindfully as well. I’d heard enough stories to know it might not be ideal for me, but I figured I should try it firsthand before I ruled it out altogether. So I did. It’s hardly evil, or horrific, and there are far worse fates in life than having to put out a book with a big publisher. But I’m about a hundred times happier doing it on our own; for me, our way definitely beats the highway, even when the “highway” means a far higher rate of short-term sales.

The book you’re holding right now has its issues (what doesn’t?), but the decision to go to print with them was no one’s but ours; while we don’t have control (see page 279), we do have a very high degree of influence. When I hold one of our books in my hands, I feel the same way about it as I do a loaf of handcrafted bread from the Bakehouse, hand-ladled, paper-wrapped goat cheese from the Creamery, a made-to-order sandwich from the Deli, a carefully constructed fresh candy bar, or a rack of ribs (nine hours of smoking, braising, and steaming before they’re ready) from the Roadhouse. I appreciate the paper quality, the design done by our staff, the scratchboard drawings, and the feel of it every time I pick up a volume to show it to a customer. While the words inside are the same in a book that’s printed on poor quality paper with a suboptimal sense of design, well-made old-fashioned books do feel better! At the small scale at which we’re working, there’s a connection between the writer, the editor, the designers, the people who produce them, and the folks from whom you’re buying them. It’s the same sort of shorter, mindful supply chain we’ve worked so hard to establish with what we eat. Only in this case it’s about products that are in print, not on your plate.

Going back to the small-scale publishing of the anarchist world of the early 20th century, not far behind Free Vistas on the beauty scale was a book Joseph Ishill issued as a tribute to Élie and Élisée Reclus. While you’ve likely never heard of them, the brothers were apparently special people and very highly respected back in their day. Élisée was a world-famous geographer, and his older brother, Élie, was a world-renowned anthropologist; both were also avowed anarchists. The Oriole Press book, published in 1927 (two decades after the two had passed away), is a collection of essays, letters, and articles by and about the brothers. In the introduction, Ishill himself wrote about its production: “One by one,” he said, “the pages [of this book] were set up and printed by a single pair of hands, and the first crow of the neighbor’s cock, indicating the passing of midnight, was the signal for me to ‘lay off’ for the night. In spite of handicaps, however, I never felt really fatigued with my work. There was always nervous energy to eke out the physical, and I felt a certain exaltation in the thought that I was burning the candle at both ends, [and] it was for a social cause. I felt what almost every other individual would feel in a society differently constituted from the present one. I was doing the work I loved—doing it with enthusiasm, if not physical strength, unimpaired.”

To use Wendell Berry’s worldview (see pages 28–29), that is as about as good as good work can get. Joseph Ishill’s art, his books, and his insights are all pretty inspiring. He closes out the introduction with something that struck me, book lover that I am, as very timely. “Until the dawn of a more luminous day,” he wrote, “let at least the few in quest of truth and beauty find their meed of content in the written word. Nothing, alas, in this era of harsh reality can quite take the place of books.” I’ll stand by what he said—times are still tough, so, for me at least, nothing really takes the place of a well-made book. To Mr. Ishill’s point, great books are beautiful; if you couldn’t already tell, I love them. Which is why, then, I really wanted to make books that I love, books that are in synch with all the other traditional, carefully crafted foods we’re selling here at Zingerman’s. I hope that we’ve at least come close to succeeding with what you have in your hands.

One last note and a bit of book-oriented laugh, so to speak, for the road. In her biography of Emma Goldman, Red Emma Speaks, author Alix Kates Shulman shared that the queen of the anarchists “was arrested so often that she never spoke in public without taking along a book to read in jail.” I hope none of us will be getting arrested any time soon, but it’s not unlikely we will get stuck in an airport, arrive early for a dinner date, or find ourselves waiting for our doctor to finish with the previous patient. I guess you can probably just do email on your phone while you wait, but, hey, why not bring a book? And, better yet, one that’s on nice paper, that feels good when you hold it in your hands, and, even better still, in your mind when you work your way through its contents.