Oral histories are almost always of interest, and in the world of the book, where discourse is ironically scant, I'm especially grateful for the historians and scholars who have taken the time to ask the right people the right questions about their work, and taken the additional (sometimes painstaking steps) to put those words into print.

I'm always surprised that more people haven't read Robert Dana's Against the Grain, which contains interviews with small press publishers James Laughlin, Harry Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Martin, Daniel Halpern, Tree Swenson & Sam Hamill, Jonathan Williams, and David Godine. Dana lets the tape roll--most interviews clock in at approximately 40 pages--so there's plenty of time to put some more ice in your drink and listen to another story behind the story about a book or writer you thought you knew. It's a nice mix of printers and publishers, and although the title doesn't specify, most of the talk centers on poetry.

Dana's book might have been part of what prompted me to publish Alastair Johnston's Hanging Quotes last year. It includes interviews of varying length, ranging from just a few pages with Roger Levenson to  thirty pages with Dave Haselwood. Unlike Dana's book, Johnston's interviews are not only with publishers, but poets, typographers, printers, and book artists as well, making for a quirkier, yet more balanced perspective on the book as a poetic form.

I found Printing as a Performing Art edited by Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun at a bookstore in Albuquerque the other day and read it on the flight home. I hadn't heard of it before, but when I looked at the table of contents, I knew it was an important part of the oral history of printing, including interviews with Edwin Grabhorn, Robert Grabhorn, Lawton Kennedy, Lewis & Dorothy Allen, Jack Stauffacher, William Everson, Adrian Wilson, and Mallette Dean. Of the three books, this is the most focused insofar as all the subjects are California printers.

As the discourse of the book continues to expand, the need for primary information needs to follow, and oral histories are a great way to prompt people to say things that often wouldn't occur to them to write down--so much of the process that goes undocumented.



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