CODEX 2017: Notes from Book Heaven

CODEX2017I’ve just wrapped up another wonderful visit to the CODEX Book Fair and the amazing city of San Francisco/Richmond that hosts it every two years. For those of you who have not been but share a love for the hand-made book, I urge you to put it on you bucket list of things to do. For the price of a $10 daypass, you can talk about, see, touch, and experience more  books and book objects than probably anywhere else. Books that might only be in an edition of 10 and end up in institutional private collections and then only exist to us as pictures on the internet and post on blogs like this. While I have the pleasure and privilege to own books from some of the presses I see here, most are way beyond my means and even my realistic desires. So the chance to see them in person is priceless. And the chance to talk with the artists, makers, and creators who manifest them can be sublime. Come see this little slice of book heaven when you can.

Pericles 7As most of you may know from this blog or our conversations, I am a reader and lover of literature first. But that love led me eventually to handmade fine and private press books. Like many other things in my life, when I can and when it makes sense, I tend to gravitate towards things made by people, not non-people like corporations. And when I have the pleasure of knowing the maker behind that thing, it brings even more pleasure. For example, reading Shakespeare’s Pericles, in a tattered paperback perfect bound by a corporation manufacturing in China is a different experience from reading Pericles in the Folio Society’s Letterpress Shakespeare edition. Or in the Barbarian Press’ transcendant edition of Pericles, where I not only enjoy the magnificence of the book itself but also can’t help but bring to mind the wonderful people that Jan and Crispin Elsted are. Like I like to say in my Leaves of Cha tea business, provenance matters…for a lot of reasons and in a lot of areas of our life.

As a reader, one of the trends I’ve noticed at the show is towards more book arts and book objects over handmade manifestations of literature. That’s what I’m really after. I can get excited about certain book objects: something that incorporates a favorite line from a favorite artist or that is an imagining blossoming out of a love for literature. But book objects simple as an example of craft, or a piece of art, aren’t really my thing and I tend to wander by those tables with just a glance. That’s just personal preference; not an indictment of those artists or objects. I just tend to wish there were more “presses” creating and publishing literature. Of course I always want to see my favorite authors and works done in a fine edition, especially if they haven’t been done before or seem particularly appropriate for the fine or private press treatment. As much as I love Shakespeare, do we really need another fine press edition of his Sonnets? Or would I rather have Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz or Anne Carson? The latter. Instead of a mid-catalog Trollope, give me Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, or some Ursula Le Guin. Can you tell I’d like to see more representation of the amazing women writers out there in the fine and private press world?

Now let me move on and tell you about some of the things I saw that got me excited. I apologize for not having some pictures but that just didn’t seem appropriate or feasible as I meandered through the Fair.

Wind in the Willows 3The most exciting thing I learned about at the Book Fair was the upcoming edition of The Wind in the Willows being planned by Chad Pasternack and James Dissette under their new imprint, Mad Parrot Press. Their previous imprint, Chester River Press brought us the magnificent edition of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, among other gems. Now, I have a soft spot in my heart for The Wind in the Willows from reading it and soaking up the illustrations as a child. I have the lovely Folio Society edition with beautiful illustrations by Charles Van Sandwyk, so you would think that would be enough. But the plan is for this edition to illustrated by Vladimir Zimakov, who is one of my favorite illustrators (and who also had a table at CODEX and is a delight to talk to). He’s done book covers for various publishers, one of the latest of which was the Hogarth Shakespeare retelling of The Tempest by Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed. He illustrated The Golem for the Folio Society back in 2010. And he’s worked with various musicians as well, including one of my favorites, Amanda Palmer. So I’m very excited to see what he comes up with for this edition of The Wind in the Willows. Based on the test sketches, I think it will be amazing!

AlbertineIf I could have come home with one thing, it would have been Kim Anno’s edition of Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workout. And this illustrates exactly the point I was making above about coming from a reader’s and literature lover’s perspective first, and a handmade book lover’s perspective second. I want something that resonates with me as a reader that has been manifested into an amazing edition by a press and/or artists. This edition does so on many levels: (1) Anne Carson is one of my favorite living poets and authors and also seems to be a generally amazing person, (2) She is writing about a Proustian character from In Search of Lost Time, another of my favorite works of literature, and (3) Kim, a close friend of Carson’s, has realized an imaginative and creative way to present her work. Originally published as one of New Directions Poetry Pamphlet series, this edition is a set of loose sheets interspersed with Anno’s illustrations encased in a clamshell box. You can see it here.

HamOnRye SightglassThe Prototype Press is doing a edition of Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye that I hope to see at some point. I’ve only read his poetry but have always wanted to get to his novels as well. This edition sounds impressive with 30-plus wood block illustrations in a book that will be 10×15 inches and 3 inches thick. I love the eclectic work that has come out of this press to date.

The Nawakum Press had its typically beautiful books on display once again. The Sea Fogs would be a wonderful edition to any library. The color illustrations by Gary Aphonso in particular were especially eye catching. Their latest publication, A Kerosene Beauty, is also wonderful. David Pascoe just keeps putting out winners.

My favorite Irish Press, the Salvage Press, also made the trip again. It’s a delight to talk to Jamie Murphy and to soak up his passion for printing and his dedication to his work. The latest book of WW1 poetry by various Irish poets, Winter, is a dream, whether in the standard or deluxe edition. It was also an amazing privilege to see some of the illustrations from the upcoming Johnathan Swift edition of A Modest Proposal, some of which use Jamie’s children as models. Definitely check out the great work that Jamie is doing, if you haven’t already.

Other things of interest as I spent my two days wandering the aisles included a very cool Chinese edition of The Dream of the Red Mansion. This book was done in a traditional Chinese style with the pages creating a picture as they were turned. Beautiful but maybe more interesting to me if it had been done in English or, even better, was bi-lingual. Yes, the reader in me again. That book has been on my “to be read” list for a long time. Being in the tea business, I put a plug in for them to do Lu Yü’s Classic of Tea, which I believe would make be a good candidate for a fine press book given its historical significance as the first book written on tea. It would present great illustration possibilites as well. I had a wonderful conversation with Tracey Rowledge of Tomorrow’s Past about book binding and conservation. It is so refreshing to find kindred spirits who get excited about books and whom you feel like you could chat with for hours on end about all things books and literature. I also had a great conversation with Lawrence and Peggy of the Foolscap Press about their beautiful books and my regret at discovering that Direction of the Road was my favorite Ursula Le Guin short stories AFTER their edition was long gone. I did, however, pick up their wonderful tarot cards as a gift for my wife. And finally, my pick of a book object was a Julio Cortázar story tucked into the body of a Nokia mobile phone with neatly incorporated illustrations. I’ve misplaced the name of the French press that did it unfortunately…and the name of the story. I love Cortázar but was also attracted to the object because it was in the body of the last mobile phone I owned that actually work well as a phone (before all this multi-media and carmera BS). I think it was a 5190 or something? And a Fine Press related item is that Oak Knoll Press is getting very close to releasing a book on the Limited Editions Club that I have been anticipating for a few years now.

All in all, CODEX is something I look forward to each time it starts to get close. As I said, there just aren’t any other opportunities like this to touch and see books of this quality as well as talk to their makers. I wish I could help out my favorite presses by being in the position to purchase more of their work but I do what I can in my humble way to keep the art and craft alive. On top of the joy of CODEX, the trip has turned into a kind of tradition for my daughter and I to take a trip together, see amazing books, visit all our favorite bookstores in the area, eat a lot of food and hit all our favorite coffee and ice cream bars. She went to school and lived in the city for many years as well as working at the Arion Press for a time, so we can fill several days getting through our list of places to visit.

Now it’s the long wait for 2019, by which time I hope my piggie bank has filled enough to get a copy of that enticing Wind In The Willows. I encourage all lovers of fine and private press and book arts to make this amazing event at least once. You won’t regret it.




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