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In praise of pretty books

Michael Dirda

Even as a boy, I was already a book critic — of sorts. Any paperback I might buy underwent intense scrutiny for manufacturing flaws and other irritations. Bantam Books used dark, ugly paper little better than newsprint, the shiny cellophane on Mentor covers regularly delaminated, the design of Pocket Books struck me as bland and the glue binding for Dell titles occasionally dried out. None of them could match Signet or Penguin in terms of quality. Alas, I never saw any Oxford World’s Classics or Anchor Books until I went off to college.

Signet’s superiority derived, in large part, from the quality of its paper stock, which was whiter and brighter than that of its competitors and without any dreaded see-through. Such considerations partly explain why, in my 20s, I worked my way through Dard Hunter’s magisterial “Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft.” As John Bidwell says in Paper and Type: Bibliographical Essays (The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia), Hunter’s book retains its place as the basic primer of paper history. As curator of printed books at the Morgan Library, Bidwell himself addresses most of his writing to other scholars, but several articles here do carry slightly wider appeal, notably the introductory “Study of Paper as Evidence, Artifact and Commodity” and a long survey of “Fine Paper at the Oxford University Press.”

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