Deborah Howe: Picking up the volume of Suave Mechanicals is serious business. Not only is it robust and heavy in physical weight, a well-rounded three and a half pounds, but it contains nine densely academic book history essays which take the reader into a detailed appreciation of what books can tell us when we pay attention and listen. Being a practitioner and not a scholar, I was a bit intimidated to agree to write this review (I thank Peter Verheyen for that), but none the less I was challenged and invigorated by the ways in which this volume creates new pathways and foundational research into our field of book history.
The title of this book is taken from the exhibition of the same name, Suave Mechanicals, held at the University of Michigan in 2003 and curated by the [editor, Julia Miller]. In Barlett’s review of the exhibit posted 5/1/2003 she says: “The exhibit title is Julia Miller’s riff on Shakespeare’s characterization of the amateur actors in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as “rude mechanicals.” It sums up her view of these books as information machines with moving parts that are also objects of sophisticated beauty – that are “suave” – like Cary Grant...with a little age, a little patina, a real character of beauty.”
Each chapter in [this] book represents a “Mechanical,” with a unique story. Yet much of the research intersects, producing a multi-faceted narrative, many of the stories supporting each other in tangent fashion.…Each chapter in this volume stands alone, however as a whole they complement each other so well that the cumulative information casts a wide and deep net. The chapters tie together within each topic and yet the cross over is thought-provoking and informative, going from beating books in Mexico (Romero), to the history of this step (Peachey,), both Metzger and Milevski use the same binder ticket image, and Townsend quotes research done by Miller and Peachey. What the reader takes away from this collection is so much more than what is detailed in each essay. It is the collection together with all the various background information and detailed supportive evidence, not only derived from the books themselves but from the times in which they lived and were produced. We are taken down the main streets of the topics at hand but we are then diverted down the side streets and back alleys to the nitty-gritty.
This book highlights the need for further and continued research in these subjects. Some of the research in this volume is predicated on previous established research, especially that of Szirmai, French, Spawn, and work done by Pickwoad that is referred to often, yet in this current generation there is a pressing need to establish new research. Drawing upon the practical knowledge of conservators and practitioners who have a trained eye into the observation of these books is critical to the advancement of our understanding and comprehension of how the book shaped who we were and now, as we face a new brink of changing book distribution and production it is even more critical to reflect on past historical knowledge. This book raises the level of investigative research with an eye towards merging related topics and opening up new ones. This book is definitely a critical addition to anyone’s collection, be it that of a scholar, conservator, or a student of book history.
Townsend summarizes it well as he states at the end of his essay: “Perhaps the best way to pursue such investigations is to forget what we know, or think we know, and approach the evidence—documentary, bibliographic, physical or cultural—with a critical eye to gain a fresh look that may lead to new conclusions.”
I have a great affinity and admiration for many of these authors, as they have become my close colleagues and friends over the years, generously sharing their expertise, knowledge and good will. With their practiced insight and professional standing they have brought new discoveries and awareness to the arena of book history. This book could be used as a quick reference or as a required text in a History of Book class. It establishes a new level of scholarly research and invites each one of us to become more astute and insightful when conserving and or observing these rough jewels. "Bonefolder Extras." http://bonefolderextras.blogspot.com/2013/04/suave-mechanicals-volume-1-essays-on.html