In Quest of the Perfect Book

by William Dana Orcutt. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 8vo. xx+298 pp. Illus. $5.00.
MR. ORCUTT’S quest may be said to have come to an end: he has prepared the perfect book. If, in my review, I am to live up to the popular notion that a ‘critic’ is one who finds fault with the books he considers, I shall be driven to such desperate expedients as pointing out that Mr. Orcutt spells ‘Gabrilowitsch’ without the ‘s,’that his discussion of Mark Twain uses ‘philosophy’ in the vague sense of ‘understanding of life,’that he is guilty of referring to John Baskerville as one of the ‘most unique’ characters in the history of printing. I am confident also that his low estimate of the ’barrenness’ of mediævalism would be modified somewhat if he knew his Middle Ages as well as he knows his Renaissance. For my purpose, however, it is better to record that he has placed a volume on my shelves between A. Edward Newton’s Amenities of BookCollecting and W. W. Ellsworth’s A Golden Age of Authors.
In Quest of the Perfect Book is slightly more technical than either of these earlier volumes: A Golden Age of Authors was purely literary reminiscence, while The Amenities of BookCollecting had for its special theme a pursuit very simple when compared with ‘The Lure of Illumination’ and printing as an art. But let the knowledge of the head of the University Press of Cambridge frighten nobody, for he does not parade it; and he tells his story with the enthusiasm of an adventurer.
Mr. Orcutt’s ideal may best be expressed in his own words: —
‘ What I wanted to do was to build low-cost volumes upon the same principles as de luxe editions, eliminating the expensive materials, but retaining the harmony and consistency that come from designing the book from an architectural standpoint. It adds little to the expense to select a type that properly expresses the thought which the author wishes to convey; or to have the presses touch the letters into the paper in such a way as to become a part of it . . . or to find a paper . . . soft to the feel and grateful to the eye, on which the page is placed with wellconsidered margins; or to use illustrations or decorations, if warranted at all, in such a way as to assist the imagination of the reader rather than to divert him from the text; to plan a titlepage which, like the door to a house, invites the reader to open it and proceed, its type lines carefully balanced with the blank; or to bind . . . with trig squares and with design or lettering in keeping with the printing inside.’
Many years have passed since Mr. Orcutt set out on his quest. He realized that ‘no man can give of himself beyond what he possesses,’ and that in order to make his ambition worth achieving he must absorb ‘the beauty of the ancient manuscripts and the early printed books.’ This meant, in narrowing circles: Europe; Italy; Guido Biagi and the Laurenziana in Florence. He describes in some detail ten examples of illuminated manuscripts, from the Lindisfarne Gospels of the Celtic eighth century to the Hours of Anne of Brittany in the French sixteenth, and ten ‘Triumphs of Typography’ from the Gutenberg Bible to the Kelmscott Chaucer and the Doves Bible of Cobden-Sanderson. In the course of his researches he was brought into contact with many artists, printers, librarians, and scholars; and he is able to bring these men out of the obscurity to which such are usually confined, so that we can see them for what they are, and applaud their services to scholarship and literature.
It is interesting also to read of Henry James’s happy experiments with Fletcherism. (Horace Fletcher is not even mentioned in Percy Lubbock’s edition of James’s Letters.) I am surprised to learn of Bernard Shaw’s interest in typography: I should say his books were typographically and in format the least attractive I have.
Going back to Mr. Newton’s Amenities of Book-Collecting, one recalls how that volume made amateur collectors of nobody knows how many Americans (to the ruination of their pocketbooks, but to the vast improvement of their souls). If Mr. Orcutt’s book has anything like the influence it should have, librarians are going to be puzzled these next few years to account for the sudden spurt of interest in printing and illumination. In Quest of the Perfect Book is a most beautiful trade volume. It is inconceivable that any bibliomaniac should even consider getting along without it.
EDWARD WAGENKNECHT