Book Review: Natural Enemies of Books: A Messy History of Women in Printing and Typography

I pre-ordered Natural Enemies of Books: A Messy History of Women in Printing and Typography immediately when I stumbled upon on the ‘forthcoming titles’ page of publisher Occasional Papers’s website. I knew the the title was a reference to an essay in a book designed and printed by a number of women in 1937—Bookmaking on the Distaff Side. I had recently learned about it in my own research and had only just succeeded in getting my hands on a copy from the edition of 100 after many dead ends. Thank you, interlibrary loan, and thank you, UC Berkeley!

Bookmaking on the Distaff Side was a unique piece of collective work in which women printers were invited by a committee to submit signatures they’d printed to be bound into an edition, which contributor, Kathleen Walkup, refers to as a pot-luck format. This means each submission is printed on unique paper, with varied colors, type, and illustration styles. It’s diminutive size and deckled edges with unique papers (and colors) make it such a treat to hold and leaf through. Content focuses generally on printing and typography, whether it be type theory, history of women and printing, or humorous piss-takes about the famous typographic men of that era. Perhaps my own greatest surprise in reading the book was the shade thrown at male printers and typographers. Though it is often tempered with some clarifying diplomatic statement, it’s clear the women who put this volume together had opinions and knew humor was a clever way to couch their critical opinions.

So you can imagine my delight, when I saw that a collective of women designers from Sweden, MMS (Maryam Fanni, Matilda Fodmark and Sara Kaaman), was publishing a book that would be a dialog with this special volume. They write:

“We found the book comforting and encouraging as it provided us with a link to a history of women in our professions. In reading the various stories of women working roles that would later become identified as part of the ‘graphic design’ field, we were able to better understand our own professional identities. We were able to see more clearly how what we do and how we work is a patchwork of tasks and jobs that have shifted with technological and economical changes, that will keep shifting.”

Full disclosure—once I learned more about their book, and the collective, I enlisted MMS to write an essay for an anthology I’m editing.

Natural Enemies of Books offers some fascinating history about the making of Bookmaking on the Distaff Side including leading printer/editors, Jane Grabhorn of the Jumbo Press (covered here on by Mallory Haselberger) and Edna Beilenson (covered here on by Tânia Raposo for her incredible Peter Pauper Press work), as well as other major players like Beatrice Warde and Gertrude Stein.

Excerpts from Bookmaking on the Distaff Side are sprinkled throughout the book, alternating with essays that examine women working in printing and typesetting from 1937 to today. The authors note that they decided not to simply to recreate the book format, but instead have chosen to have a dialog with it, and even more specifically, they have chosen to focus that dialog on the stories and women in the printing and typography trades—looking for stories of the collective and ‘anonymous worker’. Included are histories of the printing and typesetting trades in England and Sweden as well as a series of conversations with former typesetters who illuminate the importance the of the collective in the push toward equity both for gender and race issues in the trade.

This approach to graphic design history study has been gaining favor by historians and authors for some time now beginning with essays like Martha Scotford’s Messy vs. Neat History: Toward an Expanded View of Women in Graphic Design, 1994, which is referenced in the subtitle. It is a means to understand not just the stories of the so-called auteur or singular designer, but the everyday designers, working to make the “graphic stuff” of our daily lives, while paying bills, raising families, and perhaps enjoying pride and process for the work they did too. This approach investigates history from all angles, giving a fuller picture, from which to view the artifacts.

And speaking of the artifact—I truly enjoy the small paperback format of this book! I think somewhere along the line, we got it in our heads that design books must be big, oversized coffee table affairs. Even books that are dominated by text seem to be in the oversized category. What I enjoy about this pocket format, is the packability. I was able take this book on the go, without stressing about bulk or weight. And while images weren’t massive, they existed when necessary in a decent balance. I think I first saw this done well by GraphicDesign& (and in color!)—but naturally, it’s not new. Perhaps the prime example is The Medium is the Massage designed by Quentin Fiore in 1967.

Because Bookmaking on the Distaff Side was only printed in an edition of 100, few of us will get the chance to look through an original. I continue to comb the internet for copies, but I don’t think I would be able to afford it, even if I found it for sale. So I appreciate this book and its homage to the original, but I would love to see a full facsimile printed in full color for all to appreciate the entire source. I would argue we designers do not need another standards manual at the moment, but we do need access to unique reprints like this—chock full of opinions, experiences, illustrations, and typography that allow us a window to women in our field working in 1937. What do you say, Occasional Papers?