Art in Paradise: Printing with Gravity

Hitting the print button provokes a particularly quotidian set of phenomena: flashing lights, inexplicably long pauses, humming noises and vaguely unpleasant plasticky sounds. The results might look great, but the process holds few charms.

When I watched Guy Pettit, who heads up Flying Object bookstore and letterpress in Hadley, produce a page of print and image, the process seemed almost as impressive as the finished product. No flashing lights were in evidence, and no alarming crunches of cheap parts.

Pettit worked on a proof press of mid-20th century vintage, and the weighty contraption had presence, maybe even—if a press can have such a thing—an air of gravitas. The Flying Object press (one of several in the room, including much older examples) seemed equal parts Willy Wonka, Rube Goldberg, and 1950s industrial overbuild.

The first plate of two Pettit was printing had been laid out and aligned, and he spread blue ink on a metal roller that hummed solidly along, interlocked with a second metal roller and a third made of rubber. The roller spread the ink into a gorgeous sheen, moving back and forth while it rolled. It seemed paramount to get things going as soon as possible, but that was a misconception.

Letterpress printing is a far more involved, even meditative process than newer methods of putting ink on a page. In fact, Pettit said, the rollers could keep going that way for hours and the ink wouldn’t dry out. We weren’t in a rush.

Pettit’s young enough that it seems surprising he’s interested in something as antiquated as letterpress printing. But this, too, is probably mere misconception. Maybe it’s the byproduct of the longstanding ubiquity of computers, or perhaps a backlash against the dull similarity of e-books and mass market everything, but literature lovers of all ages seem to be taking a stand with the pleasures of books as art objects.

Flying Object is something of a shrine to that concept. It’s part gallery, part bookstore in addition to a print shop aimed at the literati. The surroundings are spare; every object and book seems to make an impression on the space it fills. The shelves aren’t weighed down with volumes. The books are of a rarefied sort: beautiful, weighty. Most nod toward a certain kind of aesthetic. You’ll find the work of Robert Walser here, of Jorge Luis Borges, chapbooks by Valley poets that Pettit printed. If it’s the merely popular you seek, you probably won’t find it.

The books and broadsides that roll off the presses at Flying Object interact with the words on their pages in a way that mass market works can’t. Pick up a chapbook here, and it’s not mere copier paper. The pages have a rough heft, and the letters themselves possess texture from the pressing of type into the page. These are books that halo their contents, that slow down reading to something more along the lines of consideration, as if their singularity demands notice.

Pettit’s is not the only letterpress in Hadley—Wild Carrot Letterpress is very near, and the wider Valley boasts even more. The pleasures of the printed page may be threatened by the rise of e-books, but counter-currents like letterpress printing are likely to get stronger. Books aren’t going away any time soon.

When the ink had finally spread to a just-right consistency on the rollers, Pettit showed me how to clamp the printing paper into place with the aid of a pedal. The machinery, at first mysterious, started to make more sense. Following his direction, I cranked the paper over the plate. The solidity of the press made the process feel good—the handle was oversized, and it turned the large cylinder holding the paper with a heavy smoothness. When the roller hit the plate, I felt it. When the ink had rolled on, the sharp-edged lines and indentation in the paper seemed like their own reward.

It’s addictive to put words on the page this way. The length of the process and the attention it requires demand a deliberateness, an unhurried focus that immediately changed how I thought of putting words on the computer screen. Next time I sat to type, I slowed down, thought of each word as more important.

That may be what we stand to lose more than anything else now that computers have taken over the job of letterpresses. It’s very easy to change things. That is, in many ways, a tremendous advantage. It also means that the sheer number of words available to parade before your eyes is overwhelming.

Flying Object and its cousins in the world of old-school literary art are, deliberately or not, increasing the value of the words they put on the page. That can only be a good thing, especially when the physical results are gorgeous in their own right.

Author: James Heflin

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