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ESSAY: The Book Club of California

In two years, The Book Club of California will celebrate its hundredth anniversary. In a state where citizens worship the new and passionately embrace individual and cultural reinvention, this centennial milestone is particularly significant. Founded in 1912, The Book Club of California was the brainchild of a group of businessmen, politicos, printers and publishers who hoped to take advantage of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that was to be held in San Francisco that year. Although the group never realized its dream of hosting an exhibition of fine printing and rare books at the Exposition, the Book Club of California was launched with a mission to preserve the history and culture of California and the Pacific coast, and to promote an appreciation of printing and fine books.

In 1914, the Club published its first volume, A Bibliography of the History of California and the Pacific West 1510–1906 by Robert Ernest Cowan. That book was quickly followed by limited editions of the work of Edwin Markham, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce and other literary luminaries whose writing in some way embraced the Golden State. The literary standards were not as consistent as the production values, and while the Book Club published the work of such giants as Robinson Jeffers and Frank Norris, books by such lesser lights as George Sterling and Ina Coolbrith were showcased abundantly.

The Book Club has now published well over 200 volumes. Some of the Club’s publications possess great literary or historical value; a few others are precious, or so arcane as to be of limited interest as texts, but all are marked by the highest standards of book design, typography and production values. It would be fair to say that the Book Club of California helped to set the standards by which fine printing has been judged in this country, and it has done well to uphold those standards. There are several books among its titles that not only memorialize some aspect of California history, but do so with such skill and artistry that they deserve mention in any discussion of the art of the book. The Grabhorn edition of Diseños of California Ranchos: Maps of Thirty-seven Land Grants (1822-1846) is of inestimable historical value, but it also happens to be a masterpiece by one of this country’s premiere printers. There are dozens of such gems in the Book Club’s bibliography.

John Henry Nash, Taylor and Taylor, and the Grabhorn Press dominated the first decades of the Book Club’s publications, but in the 50’s and 60’s Adrian Wilson, Andrew Hoyem, Saul and Lillian Marks, Lawton Kennedy and many others produced works of great beauty and sophistication for the Club. Their camaraderie helped create an almost fraternal atmosphere, which was carried on and sustained by such printers as Jack Stauffacher, Wesley Tanner, Will Powers and others who socialized over wine at the frequent receptions, exhibitions and open houses. Their influence on the burgeoning letterpress and book arts movement that blossomed in the 70’s and 80’s can’t be overestimated.

In addition to producing one to three books every year, since 1933 The Book Club of California has printed its Quarterly News-Letter in addition to annual keepsakes and an abundance of marvelous ephemeral pieces. The Quarterly News-Letter is a much-loved publication that provides a forum for readers and scholars, and has showcased the skills of such printers as Wesley Tanner, Patrick Reagh, Peter Koch and others over the years. The blogosphere recently burned with righteous anger and sharp denunciations when the Book Club decided to cease printing their Quarterly News-Letter letterpress. While this decision brought out yet another lamentation for the death of letterpress (one wonders how many deaths it will ultimately have to suffer), there is a more fundamental and significant battle being waged, one in which The Book Club of California is uniquely positioned to play a critical role. For most of its history, The Book Club has been philosophically defensive; its mission has been to hold on to something that its members feel must be saved. Exactly what’s being saved—and by whom and for whom—is what’s now in flux.

When Ward Ritchie, the first printer from Southern California to print for the Book Club, produced Cato’s Moral Distiches in 1939, it marked an expansion of the Club’s focus and demographics that is integral to the organization today. While printers make up only ten percent of the Club’s membership, a sea change is underway that suggests an exciting, and potentially very important trend. Membership in The Book Club of California had long been capped at 1,000 members, but recently that number was expanded to 1,500. Membership has grown significantly in the southern part of the state, and the club is attracting more graphic designers and more writers than ever before. There is a growing crossover in the membership of The Book Club of California with members of such hands-on book organizations as the San Francisco Center for the Book and the Pacific Center for the Book Arts. Kathleen Burch, the president of the Book Club has long been an active member of all three organizations. There is frequent and exciting collaboration between these groups, as well as with the New York Center for the Book and the American Printing History Association. In addition to their public program, exhibitions and lectures, the Book Club places articles in mainstream media, and is a presence at Book and Antiquarian Fairs and at exhibitions around the country.

It must be acknowledged that The Book Club of California is an anachronism. Although women have been participating members since its inception, the founders were members of a privileged social elite—rich, white men primarily—who established their club in part to reassure themselves that they were upholding “culture.” For much of its history, the Club served as a de facto union hall for upscale printers whose publications primarily defended California’s parochial interests. Their projects were stunning, but were out of reach, or of no real interest to most ordinary citizens. The books were meant to be collected at least as much as they were intended to be read. As it begins its second century, the Book Club of California could well be a model for a paradigm shift whose ramifications are extremely significant. The Book Club is getting younger, and considerably more diverse in its membership. The Club’s new expanded facility is geared toward greater outreach, instruction and support for such activities as book collecting, small press publishing and hand bookbinding. The Club is instituting more collaborative programs and projects, more lectures, exhibitions and publications. Any hundred-year-old organization, particularly one whose mission is conservative by nature, might be expected to become moribund from inertia, or collapse under the weight of its own history. Preserving historical and literary texts while supporting the highest standards of the printers’ art is a noble enterprise, but The Book Club of California is uniquely positioned to champion the survival of the book itself.

For the first time, the limited edition makes sense as a cultural imperative rather than a commercial one. Instead of representing an artificial scarcity that drives up prices for the work, niche publishing will be the answer to small but interested markets. Publishers of poetry and literary fiction have known this for a long time. A book is a conversation in a box; the intimacy and ownership of the exchange is what is now being challenged. The Book Club of California is poised to engage in an ambitious and critically important battle that will determine how and whether books can survive as relevant artifacts. In addition to saving California’s cultural heritage, its members are positioned to be active participants in salvaging its future as well.

 
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