Beauty and the Book


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Fine Editions and Cultural Distinction in America

Megan L. Benton

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In post–World War I America—a world teeming with magazines, newspapers, radio broadcasts, and movies—many feared that the survival of traditional, serious books was in peril. This concern led to a publishing boom in fine editions—books valued primarily for their beauty, craftsmanship, extravagance, status, or scarcity. Beauty and the Book is a lively cultural history of the explosion in demand for these deluxe books during the 1920s and 1930s. Megan L. Benton argues that the clamor to own fine books reflected the anxieties and desires of those who mourned the rise of a modern mass culture. For them, such volumes not only affirmed a preindustrial ideal but also imparted social distinction and cultural superiority.

Benton combines new archival research with a close examination of three hundred fine editions of the period. In theory, fine bookmakers were devoted to beauty and quality and were unwilling to compromise with machinery, popular taste, or concern for profit. But such ideal standards were nearly impossible to maintain. Paradoxically, fine publishers’ ostensible indifference to commercial considerations was one of their most prized and lucrative products for sale. This book illuminates the interplay between the ideal and real nature of fine publishing as well as the complex nature of American cultural ambitions during this pivotal era.

Megan L. Benton is associate professor of English and director of the Publishing and Printing Arts Program at Pacific Lutheran University.

A selection of Readers` Subscription

“Benton’s engaging prose style and flair for the perfectly illustrative anecdote make Beauty and the Book an enjoyable read. Her uncovering of voices of the era, in all their idealism and snide practicality, enlivens and embodies the paradoxical elitism and good intentions that defined fine bookmaking in the post-World War era.”—American Studies International

“Benton explores the clash between cultural purists and preying capitalists in the publishing world’s mad rush to create deluxe editions of distinguished authors during the 1920’s and ‘30s. . . . Benton’s lucid prose exposes this fault line between vision and reality with good humor and rigid research, resulting in the most readable of scholarly tomes. A fine book about fine books, Benton’s study will delight bibliophiles with its clever mix of history, anecdote, and analysis.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Benton explores the myriad ways in which, earlier in the century, the concern that there were too many books turned into an obsession with owning finely crafted volumes.”—Publishers Weekly

“Megan L. Benton offers an engaging look at what prompted a craze for fine and limited editions in the 1920’s and early 30’s.”—Nina C. Ayoub, Chronicle of Higher Education

“If you . . . prize beauty, craftsmanship, extravagance, status or scarcity above all else in the realm of the book, then you should cherish this work itself.”—Karen Mortimore, Antiques Magazine

“[A] fascinating study of American fine printing in the 1920s and 30s. . . . Benton’s analyses are formidable and exhaustively detailed, yet they are eminently readable, and her conclusions compelling and convincing. The book is an intelligent an important contribution to a formative period in American printing history.”—Martin W. Hutner, Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America

“As we once more ponder the future of the book in the plethora of e-book initiatives, several of which are doomed to failure, it is reassuring that fine press movement is still flourishing globally and reminds us of a previous era’s publication and collecting in a fascinating and well priced book.”—Colin Steele, Antiquarian Book Monthly

ISBN: 9780300207477
Publication Date: January 21, 2014
336 pages, x
33 b/w illus.
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