Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Andrew Steeves and Gaspereau Press

Last week, Sean and I attended a lecture in Toronto given by the knowledgeable and supremely confident Andrew Steeves (my friend described him thusly, "His can-do attitude is off the charts!"). In 1997, Steeves co-founded the Nova Scotia-based literary publisher Gaspereau Press with partner Gary Dunfield in a shared desire to be self-reliant and make things with their own hands. Their business steadily issues contemporary Canadian writing using a successful mix of old and new technologies. Hardcover titles are bound by hand and covered in cloth. Their trade paperbacks are sewn, often embellished with covers printed by letterpress, and are designed and typeset with great acumen. Overseeing book production in-house began as a way for the press to reduce expenses. But the more valuable aspect of this decision, to my mind, is the care it affords in book manufacture. Producing volumes attentively expresses respect for both authors and readers. The pair's approach acknowledges the book as an object and reacquaints publishing with the history and techniques of the book arts. In his lecture, Steeves pointed to both Penguin under Jan Tschichold and England's Nonesuch Press as influences in this regard.

My admiration for what Steeves and Dunfield accomplish has many branches, including their commitment to operating a small publishing house in a culture that has supposedly turned away from literature and books. Principally, though, I'm fascinated by the fact that Steeves and Dunfield entered into their project without any previous experience in the book trade and that their combined, extensive expertise with regard to design, typography, and printing is entirely self-taught. This is the dream I hold for myself­­­—to build a career configured by writing, editing, bookbinding, printing, and publishing based on a set of skills I acquire myself, to shape a personal, life-long curriculum derived from my own vision. Yet, my confidence falters in the face of turning this ambition into action. It's a glitch that serves as the basis for my outsized interest in people like Steeves, who harness their unique abilities and face challenge and risk without succumbing to fear.

Nearly seven years ago I sent letters to various publishers seeking an apprenticeship opportunity. Gaspereau Press and a fine press based in San Francisco were among the businesses I contacted and were the only two to respond. Andrew Steeves kindly called me and we talked easily for almost an hour (which is notable because I don't like the telephone, much less using it to speak with people I've never met). His advice, to put it briefly, was that I should start out on my own, that I didn't need an external learning opportunity. I share his opinion. Still, I promptly ignored him and moved to California in a doomed, two-tiered bid to achieve my goals by shoehorning myself into someone else's enterprise, and to return to the more reckless self I'd been during my first stint in San Francisco.

Between then and now I moved to my current rural community in Prince Edward County, where I've made some misguided effort to be a kind of practicing bookbinder. This has taken the shape of producing handmade blank books of various sizes and attempting to sell them at craft and art sales ranging in size from the Milford Fair to Toronto's too-large, exhausting One of a Kind sale. However, it became increasingly evident that I began my tiny cottage industry for its psychological implications rather than its sound financial premise. Every conversation I entered into from behind my book display was a protracted, ruminative dialogue with myself.

I make all of my books with care and a fascination with the process. I enjoy it, for sure, and I'm happy when customers want to buy my work. But my trade and products are frequently met with skepticism of a particular and consistent nature. People claim to be afraid of a blank page, or profess to have no ideas. They say the books are too nice to be used, by which they mean of higher quality than their meager ability. I always urge them on, trying to persuade that all ideas are worthy chrysalises deserving of a strong, competent foundation. I say they shouldn't be intimidated, that attempting work you value is the important part. I advise starting without thinking, that books allow for writing or drawing to be private processes. Creativity is the best part of yourself and needs an outlet, I argue. Find out what you think. Be honest. I can't count the number of times I stationed myself behind a table of my empty, recriminating books before I acknowledged that to do so was a repeated, staged effort to talk myself into filling them.

Steeves' lecture was called "The Ecology of the Book" and served to outline both the philosophy behind Gaspereau Press and the role of literature generally. He explained, among other things, that "books exist where there are shared concerns," "books exist in a symbiotic relationship with the world around them," "books are the physical embodiment of thought," and "books are time machines." He invoked environmental thinkers like Wendell Berry and Aldo Leopold to describe how books intersect with precious concepts like community, relationships, and responsibility. For me, Steeves' topics and assessments broadened to reflect political issues where I live. My local government recently threatened to close a handful of the County's libraries because they're supposedly too costly to run. But we urgently need libraries because they foster community in an increasingly fractured, modernity-obsessed world. And I don't mean community in the limited sense of providing a room where people gather to use computers. Reading is valuable because it connects us to a shared, human past. If we acquaint ourselves with the writing of people who came before us, we enable ourselves to flourish. Their experience helps us decide how to live. I once attended a small meeting at my library and the group discussed how services could be improved. I asked how books are culled and was told that if titles haven't been borrowed in a certain time frame, they're eligible to be removed from circulation. I thought this was an inadequate method for assessing a volume's relevance. It's a practice that prioritizes currency and popularity. A book might languish on a shelf for years until it's borrowed and informs someone's life. This is the process by which a book becomes a time machine, as Steeves put it. Digital resources are important, but books must circulate freely.

Book history is remarkable for being a mix of opposites, meaning that while the form of the book has remained static for centuries, content has undergone sizable shifts over the course of human development. We live in a time of excessive homogeneity mostly due to a marketplace with unwavering emphasis on what's sellable to the largest number of people. I'm alive for a moment in time when a renewed diversity of ideas is imperative to illustrate the multiplicity of ways there are to think and be. Intentionally small publishing houses like Gaspereau Press reassure that there are distinct voices. The owners, in consort with their stable of writers, have a cohesive point of view. I'll attempt to be bolstered by deliberate voices like Steeves, or by the quiet, unfashionable Barbara Pym novel I've borrowed that may lose its deserved slot in the library stacks. I crave ideas—reading them and writing them—and they make up the bulk of my self-defined skills set. Stringing words together in an effort to approach insight, and maybe even artistry, is what I have to contribute.