Brain Pickings

Anaïs Nin on Self-Publishing, the Magic of Letterpress, and the Joy of Handcraft

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“You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable.”

Celebrated diarist Anaïs Nin has previously given us some keen insights on life, mass movements, Paris vs. New York, and what makes a great city. Besides artist and author, Nin was also a publishing entrepreneur. In January 1942, she sets up her own small press in a loft on Macdougal Street, and soon set out to print and self-publish a new edition of her third book, Winter of Artifice, teaching herself typesetting and doing most of the manual work herself.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this beautiful passage on the joy of handcraft, written in January of 1942 — a particularly timely meditation in the age of today’s thriving letterpress generation and the Maker Movement. (Especially interesting is the parallel to what developer Ellen Ullman articulates in describing the mesmerism of programming software.)

Anaïs Nin operating her handpress in Macdougal Street studio

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.

You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

If I pay no attention, then I do not lock the tray properly, and when I start printing the whole tray of letters falls into the machine. The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.

I use soap boxes as shelves, to hold tools, paper, inks. I arrive loaded with old rags for the press, old towels for the hands, coffee, sugar.

[…]

The press mobilized our energies, and is a delight. At the end of the day you can see your work, weigh it. It is done. It exists.

Nin then offers a wonderfully vivid vignette, in which her partner in the venture, Gonzalo, engages in a wild wrestling match with the press — a near-primal struggle we’ve all experienced in the face of an unruly letterpress or even a plain old office printer jam:

Once there was something wrong with the press. It did not work. Gonzalo would not send for the workman, or the repairman. He literally battled with the press, as if it were a bronco, a bull, an animal to be tamed. His hair flew around his face, perspiration fell from his forehead, his centaur feet were kicking the pedals. The machine groaned.

It seemed almost like a physical battle which he intended to win by force. He towered over it. He seemed bigger than the machine. I never saw anything more primitive, more like a battle between an ancient race and a new type of monster. Both as stubborn, both strong, both violent. Gonzalo won. He was breathing heavily. The wheel suddenly began to spin again. He looked absolutely triumphant.

Ultimately, the practical handiwork is for Nin a disciplining agent for the creative process of the conceptual. In a diary entry from April of the same year, she writes:

Take the letter O out of the box, place it next to the T, then a comma, then a space, and so on.

Count page 1, 2, 3, and so on. Select the good ones while Gonzalo runs the machine. Day after day. We are nearing the end. I have difficulties with the separation of words. And it is a problem in setting type.

(My separation of the word lo-ve became years later the favorite of the faultfinders!)

The writing is often improved by the fact that I live so many hours with a page that I am able to scrutinize it, to question the essential words. In writing, my only discipline has been to cut out the unessential. Typesetting is like film cutting. The discipline of typesetting and printing is good for the writer.

Nin recounts the hard-earned triumph of her handcrafted masterpiece:

The book was finished May fifth. Gonzalo and I printed the cover. The bookbinder was objecting to the nonstandard measurements. The machines were set for standard measurements. We finally found a bookbinder willing to bind three hundred books of an odd size. It was delivered all bound May fifteenth. The Gotham Book Mart gave a party for it. The book created a sensation by its beauty. The typography by Gonzalo, the engravings by Ian Hugo were unique. The bookshop was crowded. Otto Fuhrman, teacher of graphic arts at New York University, praised the book. Art galleries asked to carry it. I received orders from collectors, a letter from James Laughlin, offering me a review in New Directions by anyone I chose.

A surviving hard-bound copy of the limited edition of Winter of Artifice, self-published by Anaïs Nin in 1942, with engravings by Ian Hugo.

The book was, indeed, stunning. (The artwork on cover of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 is also by Ian Hugo, an engraving he created for another one of Nin’s books, Under a Glass Bell.)

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