The Example of Fine Print
by Raben D. Harlan
Many readers of Parenthesis will recall with pleasure its illustrious predecessor Fine Print (1975–1990) which was created by its editor/publisher Sandra Kirshenbaum to remedy the absence of effective bibliographical control of recently issued fine press books, a condition she had observed as a cataloguer for a rare book auction house and as a bookseller. Ignoring the warnings of a distinguished doyen of the San Francisco book scene that such a project could never succeed, she persisted with the help of three volunteers (the late D. Steven Corey, a rare book librarian, and Linnea Gentry and George Ritchie, two junior members of Andrew Hoyem’s press), with a budget dependent upon her personal bank account and a generous donation from her mother. The Fine Print office consisted of a card table around which her colleagues and she would gather to discuss the material they had assembled, including fine press books submitted for review. Few in number at first, these were preponderantly issued by California presses where Sandy was known and where her pledge to return the books in the same condition in which they had been received was readily accepted. The inaugural issue of Fine Print, published in January 1975, comprised a modest eight pages of text without illustrations and a banner instead of a separate cover. Sub-titled ‘A Newsletter for the Arts of the Book,’ it contained no substantive articles of the quality for which Fine Print would eventually become known and limited news, but it did establish the framework for future issues in its departments, including ‘Shoulder Notes’, a collection of newsworthy events, and most important, ‘Works in Progress’, and ‘Recent Press Books’. Printed by Andrew Hoyem, it set high typographical standards that were consistently adhered to as other printers and designers became involved. Hoyem’s support was generous — his contribution to the cause — and here too he contributed to the model because Sandy could sometimes offer only modest honoraria to contributors, perhaps a copy of a book or a complementary subscription to Fine Print, or just her thanks and the opportunity to participate in the making of an increasingly noteworthy journal. Fine Print never wanted for contributors.
Basing her mailing list upon the lists of The Book Club of California and The Typophiles of New York and the contribution of Dr Robert Leslie who added a personal donation of $50, Sandy ordered the printing of 2,000 copies of Volume I, Number 1 of Fine Print. The response was encouraging, and Fine Print seemed well launched. Sandy’s first serious challenge, to free the journal of a provincial ‘California’ stigma, diminished as the roster of authors, reviewers, and fine presses became international in scope. The first of several milestones on that path was reached when conservative eastern printer Joseph Blumenthal agreed to review William Everson’s controversial masterpiece, Robinson Jeffers’ Granite & Cypress. Sandy had approached Blumenthal with some reservation, so his enthusiastic response emboldened her to other acts of an audacity seemingly out of character. But if Sandy may sometimes have been uncomfortable in her new persona, others were not, and her modesty, integrity, and enthusiasm won many friends for Fine Print and herself.
Sandy’s editorial policy, from which she never deviated, was stated in the first issue of Fine Print: “to present a lively and informed report of the current scene in all its diversity.” She interpreted this ambitious policy to encompass all of the arts of the book. Further, she attempted to integrate all of the arts of the book, first with an expanded coverage of calligraphy, bookbinding, papermaking, wood engraving and type design, the latter subject increasingly devoted to digitization and computer-generated types, along with continued full coverage of fine printing, and second with broad international coverage. The latter goal was most brilliantly achieved in the special issues surveying particular countries about which little was known at the time in the English-speaking world. The German issue, guest edited by Renak Raecke, was a revelation; the Czech issue, with guest editor James Fraser, a tour de force, surmounting as it did formidable editorial problems such as dealing with articles in an exotic foreign language, and with sometimes awkward communications — this before the age of the fax machine and email with a country behind the Iron Curtain. The Czech issue provided the first comprehensive picture in English of the continued rich heritage of the book arts in that country since the 1930s, and it triggered something of a revival of interest in the West. The Czech articles in the issue employed Monotype’s version of Oldrich Menhart’ s original roman and italic design which Fine Print typographical editor Paul Hayden Duensing, lent for the occasion. These accomplishments, and many others, gave credence to Sandy’s proclamation in her editorial celebrating its fifteenth year that Fine Print had truly become “the gluon for the arts of the book.”
Equally important to Fine Print’s success was its physical appearance, which served to enhance the periodical’s attraction, to provide a forum for guest designers and printers, and to serve as an example of a journal devoted to the arts of the book. With the October 1979 issue, separate covers were introduced, each designed by a different person who might be a calligrapher, a printer, a type designer, or a practitioner of such other crafts. Adrian Wilson’s cover design inaugurated this series, which became the talk of the trade. Everyone has her or his own favorite cover design. The entire corpus will continue to be studied and admired by practitioners. students. and connoisseurs.
When asked to describe one of the achievements in Fine Print in which she took particular pleasure Sandy responded: recognizing the importance to book art of the “first simultaneous book” (1913), a collaboration between the evocative poet Blaise Cendrars and the Parisian colorist painter Sonja Delaunay. The poem is printed on a long sheet. the text flanked and interwoven by the brilliant colors and forms painted by Delaunay. Sandy says she was stunned when she saw a copy of the original in the New York gallery of Monica Strauss, a longtime contributing editor of Fine Print. Sandy was determined that the work should be known and appreciated in the book world. With the enthusiastic participation of Strauss, who wrote an introductory article on the collaboration, and the late Steven Harvard and a subsidy from the Meriden-Stinehour Press in Vermont. Fine Print was able to print a full-colour fold-out reproduction of La Prose du Transiberien in the July 1987 issue. Many other examples as well of Sandy-inspired serendipity illumine and enliven the pages of Fine Print.
Fine Print ceased publication with Volume 16, Number 3, not for lack of good material — Number 4 was tentatively scheduled to include, among other material, articles on the book arts in Hungary and an article on Coptic bindings — or of subscribers and support. But Sandy’s attempt to establish in Pro Arte Libri a non-profit organization to serve as an umbrella for various activities relating to the book arts including Fine Print was not successful. If she had not become seriously ill, the project and its fundraising efforts might well have succeeded, for her previous accomplishments had been formidable. And chief among these was her stewardship of one of the longest-lived journals devoted to the arts of the book, one whose vitality and high standards had never been compromised.
The Fine Print saga continues. Sandy has nearly completed a detailed index to Fine Print, which will immeasurably increase its use for reference and research. The Fine Print archives in the possession of The Bancroft Library of the University of California at Berkeley, now being processed, will eventually be made available for study. Containing layouts, original artwork, including the plates used for some of the covers, and extensive correspondence, the archives will form an invaluable and unique repository. And finally, Sandy is being interviewed by The Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office. The interview includes her account of the history of Fine Print, the salient point of which is, she says, with characteristic modesty, that she can only take credit for recognizing and uncovering the creative talent of others and giving them a place in print.