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Iron books and paper dresses

I recently attended a three-day conference of those odd people of the world who, like me, love fine printing and are makers of books by letterpress. We use type in the old ways, setting it by hand, embedding it in handmade papers and creating editions of one or two hundred copies. The discussion ranged over many topics, but it came back again and again to a question of the physical durability of our books. Were they likely to decompose and turn to dust after a certain number of years? Or would they stand more or less eternally upon the shelves, perhaps surviving virtually everything else in this transitory life?

The first issue examined was whether the papers we are using are truly of archival quality - whether they have a ''pH factor'' denoting an absence of acidity. Then the group, composed mostly of young people, began worrying lest their inks infect with mortality even the most acid-free papers, and finally whether the bindings, with their pastes and other components, might not work poison into the whole structure. The discussion had a humorous aspect, and this was brought out when one of the participants suggested that it might be just as well, after all, if some of our books did not last forever.

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Would it not be more modest to acknowledge that these, too, may pass away - that all artifacts have their day, even the work of our hands and brains. I wondered myself what might be the impression of some visitor to this planet, ages hence, who found the only surviving evidence of our culture in the books printed by our private presses. He would judge that we wrote some pretty foolish verse and that the substance of our intellectual life was rarefied and arcane.

A concern with permanence seems to be not only a reaction against the way most books are manufactured today, but in a broader way against much in our civilization that is shoddy or designed for rapid obsolescence. Newspapers disintegrate after a decade, books fall apart, and even those objects that appear more durable, like appliances and automobiles, appear to contain a built-in process of self-destruction.

Every civilization is made up of things which are shaped to have a long life, and those shaped more or less for the moment. The problem is to find a right balance between them. There is obviously something wrong with our values when great buildings are erected and then, a generation or so later, systematically demolished. On the other hand some of our arts, by nature playful and evanescent , could profit from being recognized as something less than immortal. Some contemporary artists do in fact seem to be in revolt against museum curators who try to preserve their works like monuments of antiquity. They work in materials that disintegrate, and their sculptures consist of random formations that cannot easily be transported or re-created.

A museum director I know, on opening a crate containing a painting for a forthcoming exhibit, was horrified to see the paint falling in large patches from the canvas. He called the artist in distress but was told not to worry. The paint would continue to fall away, he was advised, and the work at the end of the exhibition would be quite different from what it was at the beginning!

Other aspects of our daily life might well emulate the impermanence of this type of art. Disposable objects, or ones capable of being recycled, could relieve us of many domestic chores. It would be pleasant if the crockery would just disappear after use, instead of needing to be washed and stored. Articles of clothing that are cast off instead of being stuffed into the closet would be a domestic boon. Once when I was parks commissioner of New York I tried to encourage such a development by announcing that the young women serving as hostesses of a certain park event would wear paper dresses. ''Augie's paper dolls,'' the press dubbed them. Suggesting there was something faintly scandalous in the project, one newspaper expressed the hope that, if it rained, the commissioner would at least be so prudent as to postpone the event.

Next to noise, clutter is perhaps the chief ill of our domestic existence, and the thought of things just taking off, or mysteriously decomposing like modern books, has much to commend it. Yet the glory of life is that some things do in fact endure. Something so frail as a poem, something so apparently fleeting as a symphony, outlasts stone and steel. To hold fast to these is the secret of a true civilization. Perhaps also - to do justice to our young printers - there is redemption in holding fast to a few of the honestly conceived and touchingly created works of the human hand.

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