Out Of The National Attic


Other limitations, however, come less naturally. They are, we are told apologetically, imposed by economics. The average picture book this year—any recent year—has a bright-colored jacket which only belies the grayness within. One volume, A Currier & Ives Treasury , by Colin Simkin (Crown: $10), does employ fourcolor printing. But even this, an otherwise pleasant collection of the lithographs which gave us our stereotyped vision of the Nineteenth Century, is far off in its color work from the originals. With this exception, nearly all the current picture histories have been printed in a dull, black-and-white offset lithography which drains the life and sparkle out of the pictures.

Letterpress printing, save in one book, seems to have been financially out of the question this year. Yet this exception, Changing America , by Andreas Feininger (Crown: $5.95), a fine study of the landscape and the gradual effect man has made upon it, from the cliffdweller’s adobe house to the great cities, puts all the others to shame.

With only such an occasional exception, American picture-book-making seems to pace briskly backwards. Divided We Fought , the best single-volume Civil War picture book to date, was better printed than later volumes, indeed fully as well handled from a printing standpoint as the 10-volume Photographic History of the Civil War which Francis Trevelyan Miller put out in 1912. No recent railroad book has matched the quality of Lucius Beebe’s Highball (1945), and none of the new books devoted to line engravings is up to the standard of Washington Irving’s illustrated Life of Washington (1855–59). For real printing quality in line work, one must return to the Nineteenth Century.

The reasons are clear enough. The publisher who contemplates a picture book is caught in a trap. He must offer something that will seem worth forty times the price of a current picture magazine. But, afraid to gamble on a sale of more than five to ten thousand, he must avoid letterpress, with its high initial cost, and find a cheap method. If he dared plan on selling fifty thousand, the differential might vanish, but he dares not. And so, at the publisher’s editorial conference, there are certain suggestions:

Gotta keep it under ten bucks (answer: offset).

Gotta bulk it up (answer: rough, thick paper).

Get Jerry to lay it out (Jerry gets $400 for four weeks’ work).

The combination of Jerry, “bulk” and offset (which can be good but usually isn’t) is deplorable, from the standpoint of keeping the historical record of this country.

The argument that sales of ten thousand copies will not warrant a better production is true on the record, but is self-defeating since the poor quality and high price combine to limit sales. Actually there have been two outstanding successes this season in picture-book publishing: the book of Steichen’s great photographic show, The Family of Man , which has sold over 350,000 copies, and Life’s magnificent The World We Live In , which has grossed $6,000,000. Both of these books, to be sure, were marketed mainly outside the normal channels of book distribution, but that is perhaps a significant clue.

A more direct comparison may be found in the art field, where the Skira and Harry Abrams books have built up a wide market by offering high quality reproduction of art works at a reasonable price. A real opportunity awaits the publisher who can open up a similar market for good picture books, historical or otherwise.