Amelia Bird might dislike me. Or, at least, she might not trust me very much, because when I walked into the letterpress print shop she is helping to open in New Orleans on Saturday, I lost my shit completely and acted exactly and precisely like a four-year-old who just found out that toys were a thing. That kind of behavior is charming for about three minutes, but I bounced around the studio space -- aptly called Baskerville -- for more like forty-five, rubbing the gorgeous letterpresses and fingering the heavy-grain paper. When a person is effusive like that for that extent of time, one should probably assume they either want something from you, or are on cocaine. Neither were true for me last night, and you have to believe me: I was just really, really excited to be in that space.
Also, I am in love with Amelia. First of all, her name is Amelia Bird. Amelia, like "Earhart" or "Bedelia"; and Bird, like bird. Second, Amelia came to book arts via creative nonfiction, and is now working for the Edible Schoolyard. It's like someone designed a person that I would think was the perfect person.
The morning before I (somewhat serendipitously) walked into Baskerville for the first time, I spent about two and a half hours in the bath tub reading one of my favorite books of all time: the utilitarian-titled Making Handmade Books written by (living god) Alisa Golden. This book is an unsung treasure. Not only is it filled with tons of weird bindings and board cover methods and step-by-step bookmaking guides (for me, this is porn), it also has these little pull-quotes throughout that collectively encapsulate everything extraordinary about book arts. Here's one from an otherwise stuffy essay by Harry Reese:
The rise of the artist's book can be explained in many different ways, but certainly one of them has to do with a longing for tactility. Tactility primarily involves the sense of touch, but it is the common sense meeting place of all the sense. Each sense creates its space. We learn through the fingers and hands in ways we cannot investigate otherwise. [...] When we touch books, we bring together materials and ideas. We find a way to touch words, visual impressions, and feelings. Through all forms of portable sculpture, private picture planes, and tactile resonance, artist's books link the senses together.
I was thinking about that -- about how the senses come together around beautiful books, and about how there was nothing quite like it in the universe -- when I came across an article Amelia wrote for NolaVie. Here's the first paragraph:
Letterpress printing and bookbinding are the essence of tactility: the feel of letters imprinted on a clean sheet; the crank of presses and the taut twang of waxed thread; the fresh scent of ink, glue, and pulp.
I believe that synchronicity in the universe can be subtle -- like when you're kinda sorta thinking about a Lorde song and then it comes on the radio right then, like the radio read your brain. The synchronicity of finding this article and this print shop at the apex of my adult-onset bookmaking obsession was not subtle at all. This was like a sex metaphor in an R. Kelly song: to call it subtle would be an insult.
I sent Amelia an e-mail because the magazine I help edit is putting out its first print edition in a month, and it will be heavily book arts-influenced. The box of beautifully-designed body text booklets arrived on Wednesday, and I practically wept. The artistic director for the magazine (the indescribably brilliant Kyle Sheehan) came over to my house after work and we literally jumped up and down, squealing. Imagine a birthday where you get everything you ever wanted for every birthday of your whole entire life ever all at once. That was kind of what it was like to go through a box of literary magazines we put together ourselves, except without the cake hangover. Anyway, when I heard about Baskerville, I wanted to collaborate. I asked Amelia if we could advertise our launch party at their launch party. She said, "Why don't you come over right now."
So I went to Baskerville, which is nestled in a studio space at 3000 Royal Street in the Bywater. I took one look at the place, and immediately stopped being a cool person.
Everyone must have something like this. For some people maybe it's Adventure Time cartoons, and to them, Comic Con feels like heaven. For some people maybe it's doughnuts. The doughnut people are lucky because there are like tons and tons of artisanal doughnut shops in the universe, so they have easy access to the heaven landscape (although they should watch their calorie intake probably; doughnuts aren't very good for you). But you know what I mean: a place that encapsulates the stuff of deep, wild fantasies. Being in a print shop with two -- TWO -- platen presses in a cold room in New Orleans felt a lot like it I imagine it would have felt like to meet a Spice Girl when I was thirteen. It was unreal. It was perfect.
One of the things I love about books is the way they embody the idea of a collection. I like collections. Humans are not the only species that make them. Birds collect sticks and paper and twine (hummingbirds, amazingly, perfectly, impossibly, harvest spider webs for their nests). Squirrels collect nuts and keep them cozy until they are needed. Dogs and cats notoriously keep piles of toys or rags they are fond of. There is even a species of brown rat that gathers small gadgets and coins. There's comfort in collecting. It builds a non-living wall between our living selves and the cruel elements of the world.
But humans have it bad. If we didn't, A&E would have no relevant television programming. I am fascinated about this in people. It marks our psychological deficits -- our deep-seeded and ugly desire to hold on to what we ultimately cannot. My sister told me that the Buddhists call this Upādāna -- a Sanskrit word meaning "clinging" or "attachment." The most beautiful manifestation of this ugly habit, in my opinion, is the distinctly human creation of the book.
A book is a collection of pages, which is only a collection of ideas, which are collections of words, which are collections of letters. It is our attempt to order the chaos. This is how we have chosen line up what disturbs us so we can see it more clearly.
Baskerville is a collection of people who have collected presses and papers and drawers of type -- collections of letters made of metal, neatly nested in wooden trays. You walk in there and immediately feel the warmth of that; to be in such an orderly, messy, clean, chaotic space is like coming home.
I hope Amelia Bird does not dislike me. The thing she has co-founded here is a beautiful, bright testament to the ancient art of tactility, playfulness, and epic collection. If you are in New Orleans tomorrow night, I will be at Baskerville's opening, and you should join me. There's gonna be wine. We'll all pretend like life is something you can line up, kern, publish, and explain away.