Devices and desires

The side-effects of printing processes in terms of the traces left in the physical book and in the texts transmitted often leaves non-specialists feeling dizzy, especially when they realise that analytical bibliographers, who fortunately are not numerous and do not go into society much anyway, not only care strongly about these curious phenomena, but are also willing to quarrel violently about how they should be interpreted. The highest praise that Greg could find for McKerrow was to say that “I am persuaded that, had he stood on Sinai when Moses received the graven tables, he would have there and then sat down to hunt the tell-tale flaw that would reveal the method of production – and he would have found it” (‘The Present Position of Bibliography’, The Library, vol. 11, 1930, repr. in Collected Papers, pp. 207-225: 217). To outsiders it might seem a curious form of tribute (yet to a bibliographer the tablets of the law would certainly represent the ultimate challenge), while the search for flaws in a printed artefact that tell us something about the method of reproduction or about a break-down in the method of reproduction is still the key to analytical bibliography as an activity.

The following thematic vocabulary is not intended as a guide to technical terms or as a way through the doorway into the labyrinth; it is intended rather as a personal and very conceptual Wunderkammer or chamber of curiosities, that nevertheless hopes to direct anyone with an anxiety about bibliographical phenomena that they cannot understand towards studies in which the mechanism is expounded and the strangeness explained. Of course there are problems that are quite common but which have never received serious scrutiny. I am not aware, for instance, though my ignorance is as vast as an ocean, of any deeply learned writings on the phenomenon known as ‘frisket-bite’, but I should be glad to be mistaken.

The real difficulty in collecting useful information about ‘blind impressions’, ‘cancel stubs’, ‘set-offs’ and other typographical abnormalities or anomalies is not only that, after the passage of several centuries, some phenomena have been cancelled from all but a few copies of the original (most book restoration could more fitly be termed evidence-annihilation), but also that, if the information is reported by cataloguers or other bibliographers, it generally gets lost in thickets of footnotes or other strange woody places. Nevertheless here is listing of bibliographical strangenesses and derivative concepts around which my professional activity revolves. I strongly advise that this section be read together with the article by G. Thomas Tanselle, ‘The Treatment of Typesetting and Presswork in Bibliographical Description’, Studies in Bibliography, 52 (1999), pp. 1-57, to which, when the content of a section coincides with one of my paragraphs, I cross-reference, though, of course, I have not necessarily taken his opinions on board.