Saturday, April 20, 2013

Artifactual Books

I love a good book. By that, I don't just mean the words on the page. I love the book-as-artifact, the object itself, which, if carefully and properly created, impresses by its mere presence. I'm talking about a book that makes the room in which it lies better, no matter where it is. While I realize that there are a few trade paperbacks that are of a high quality (isn't that what the Philip K. Dick Award is all about?), I'm looking for something really special, something you're likely not going to find at your chain bookstore and only rarely at the best independent bookstores. Oftentimes, these books feature the work of obscure and experimental authors, but not necessarily.

Some small presses put out a special edition or two that are truly outstanding. Savoy Books' A Voyage to Arcturus is a good example of this. Yes, Savoy puts out some other great books, including my favorite book on writing, Michael Moorcock's Death Is No Obstacle, but nothing quite reaches the grandeur of A Voyage to Arcturus. The 2002 edition of Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, published by Prime Books, is one of the finest books in my library. But Prime hasn't done anything nearly as nice before (definitely) or since (so far as I know).

So what publishers consistently bring out the finest artifacts as books? I'm sure there are a few that I am not aware of, probably several that are no longer in business. This sort of thing requires an investment, and, as I understand the publishing industry, shoestring budgets are the rule, rather than the exception. Besides, these sorts of books are oftentimes very expensive to produce and, therefore, there are few who can afford to buy them. Margins are thin and the audience is small. It's very difficult for a publisher to sustain business, given these constraints.

Thankfully, a few small presses persevere. I'm not sure if they have wealthy investors or if the owners are really keen on losing money. Maybe they've discovered some super-secret business model that defies Keynesian economic principles. But, money aside (a LOT of money aside), here are a few must-sees.

For consistency of presentation and quality, I am partial to Tartarus Press.  Their ouvre is that of dark fiction, well told, in an understated, crisp format that never fails to impress. Truth be told, if I had to have all of my books in one physical format, I would pick Tartarus to do the job. I've commented on their edition of Gustav Meyrink's The Golem. Tartarus books are, in a word, elegant. Once you've picked one up, you'll be able to spot one on a crowded bookshelf in a flash. They are the supermodel of books, so far as I'm concerned.

Atlas Press has been putting out a number of strange works, all expertly presented, for some years now. Of special interest are their Special Editions, including a numbered and slip cased edition of Hermann Nitsch's The Fall of Jerusalem, which includes a trifolded map of the subterranean city in which the Dionysian drama takes place.

Finally, Ex Occidente Press is producing some fine books, if you've got the money to spend. Like Atlas, their tastes run to the transgressive and obscure, but with a more contemporary tilt.

Thankfully, the internet makes these works attainable, at least in terms of having the ability to obtain the books, despite the price. There are few bookstores that can and actually do physically carry these volumes (and others like them)  and I'm guessing that these bookstores are likely only located in the largest metropolitan areas. Though they do not, so far as I know, carry titles by the publishers mentioned above, I'd still recommend that those passing through southern or eastern Wisconsin stop in at Woodland Pattern bookstore, in Milwaukee, for a taste of the sort of thing I'm talking about. Speaking of which, it's probably about time I made a trip back there. Hmm. Time for a road trip?

If you know of any others, I'd love to hear about them!

ADDENDUM: Since I posted this a month ago, I have stumbled on the wonderful textual artifacts produced by Egaeus Press. They look beautiful and I am hearing some great things about them from reviewers whom I respect a great deal. Oh, how I wish I had more cash for spending on fine books like this! These are real pieces of art for the reader of dark fiction and the collector of shadowy, beautiful books at very reasonable prices. A library full of grim elegance!

ADDENDUM 2: When it rains, it pours. It's my lucky week for finding publishers of beautiful limited editions, I guess. I have the delight of having "discovered" Centipede Press and their fantastic limited edition books. Their (sold out) edition of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War looks like a treasure. Anyone want to trade for my trade paperback edition? It's in really good shape!

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