A Review of Merilyn Simonds' Gutenberg's Fingerprint: Paper, Pixels, and the Lasting Impression of Books
Review by Dana Hansen
For those who like to read about books and book history, there can never really be enough good writing about the act and pleasures of reading, the growth of a fellow reader, and the book itself as object. We don’t tire of speculation, despite the anxiety it may produce, about the future of reading. We relish descriptions of bookshelf organization techniques, beloved bookstores that feel like second homes, serendipitous finds of timely titles, and the way certain books remind us of particular moments in our lives.
Merilyn Simonds’ seventeenth and latest book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint, fits firmly and delightfully in the genre of bibliomemoir as an account of her involvement in the production of both a digital and 19th century letterpress version of her 2012 collection of flash fiction, The Paradise Project. As she moves between the two extremes – working with her son Erik, a designer, to optimize the book for e-readers, and with Hugh Barclay, publisher at Thee Hellbox Press, to design and implement every aspect of her hand-printed book – Simonds combines an illuminating history of the printed word with her own ponderings and misgivings about the digital turn our reading habits have taken. Gutenberg’s Fingerprint posits itself in part as a reflection on the author’s effort to bridge the divide in her mind and heart between print and digital books. Ultimately, this divide evoked in the book’s subtitle proves illusionary, and Simonds notes that “it’s only a matter of time until I move past print and digital to dive headfirst and full-body into whatever lies beyond.”
But most of us are not past the print and digital divide yet, not yet ready to make peace with digital reading in its many guises, or to imagine what lies beyond. Suspended as we are still in “an interregnum, or perhaps a purgatory,” Gutenberg’s Fingerprint both comforts us with nostalgic swooning over typeface, ink, and endpapers made from flowers from the author’s garden, and provokes us with a vision of eventually carrying our libraries in their entirety on the iPhones in our pockets.
There is a very real sense here that we are taking leave of something momentous, that we’re “in the crouch before the leap.” Simonds is confident that the book is not dead, specifically the paper book, but admits that “it won’t last forever,” and neither for that matter will digital books. The story’s the thing, and according to Simonds, “our humanity doesn’t dwell in one technology or another.” Rather, it “rests in our ability to create, to see the world from more points of view than just our own. We need stories. How we read them doesn’t matter one single whit.” Hers is an optimistic viewpoint to be sure, and a balm for the bibliophile’s soul.
There is much fascinating discussion in Gutenberg’s Fingerprint around the four major turning points in the history of the printed word (the invention of writing, the invention of the alphabet, the invention of movable type, and the invention of the Internet), and learning opportunities abound. If you ever wanted to know what a California Job Case is, how a line of type is set, how many pages an hour a printing press can spit out, how EPUB files work, what the E Ink (electrophoretic ink) in your Kindle is composed of, or what a colophon is and where it originated, Simonds can tell you. And somehow, with the odd exception, she makes even the most technical, dry detail meaningful, in large part because she carefully reveals these details alongside the more engaging narrative of her relationship to the eccentric Hugh Barclay.
Gutenberg’s Fingerprint is dedicated to Hugh, and it’s clear in Simonds’ rendering of their countless hours working together on The Paradise Project that this, at times, infuriatingly driven taskmaster bent on perfection is someone for whom she has a great deal of respect and affection: “How can I not love this guy? For him, as for me, it all starts with the words.” Hugh is at the heart of this book, as an innovator, a visionary, a bit of a rascal, and an indefatigable spirit.
While this book may not be the final word – not that it purports to be – on the subject of the state of reading, it is a wonderful bricolage of a book. Simonds admits that the way that she thinks and reads is changing: “My brain functions seem less linear, more scattered. More nimble, too, if I’m honest. Less able to focus, perhaps, but better able to make connections.” This book, like Simonds’ brain, is a nimble work – part history, part memoir, part technical manual, part tribute – that makes important connections between our reading past and present that we can and should carry into the future.