About Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

Last week's Eastern Corp post set a new one-day record for views. And so, now for something completely different...

All the copies of About Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) - A Bibliographic History of the Infamous Disappearing Book have been stitched up, stuck in the printed wraps, & distributed to the many people who helped with the research. That finished something that started in 1992 when I saw an advertisement for the "book" in an issue of Science Fiction Eye magazine.

In 1992 publisher Kevin Begos Jr, author William Gibson and artist Dennis Ashbaugh collaborated on a project that anticipated the advent and impact of digital books. The project, titled Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), has enjoyed perhaps one of the most lively and well-documented online afterlives of any late 20th-century book, particularly for one which so few people have ever actually seen, and which so many people believe does not actually exist.

While the collaboration’s initial concept – a digital text that irreversibly encrypts itself during the first reading, making it subsequently inaccessible, paired with light-reactive etchings that degraded over time – and influence have been thoroughly examined by academics, bibliophiles and Internet trolls, the story of its actual production has never been told in one place. (The term “book” is used here to describe the collective parts, including the 3.5-inch computer diskette secreted in a hallow at the back of the book’s text block). Many of the details about its production have come out only over the past decade, as several major institutions acquired archive materials from the project, and devoted attention and resources to chronicle the book’s creation.

The University of California Santa Barbara hosts an excellent and extensive site called The Agrippa Files, but it was written by academics, and their focus and interests are not the same as a publisher/printing geek, so some details about Agrippa’s tangible aspects remained opaque, if not absent altogether. This is what sustained my curiosity since seeing that ad in SF Eye: there's nothing I find more fascinating than a book about whose existence there is some dispute.

The unexpected appearance of an almost complete copy of Agrippa at my home in 2013 was all the push needed to start trying to piece together the story of its publication. While some fundamental questions remain around exactly how things unfolded as they did, About Agrippa... succeeds in irrefutably confirming that publication happened, though not exactly as promised at the time or described by the collaborators since. 


Transcripts of Gibson’s poem appeared online soon after the book’s launch in December, 1992 (thanks to a surreptitious video recording of the disc being run for the publication launch), but people questioned whether the book object had actually been produced (because so few people ever saw a copy) and whether the self-encrypting disc had been created. Doubts about Agrippa’s existence grew in the years since its publication, in no small part due to misinformation (whether intentional or not) from the three collaborators. Gibson has been quoted in several instances saying the project “never happened” and that he’s never seen a copy (but we know he has seen, at the very least, the copy held at the New York Public Library). In the section of Ashbaugh’s Web site about Agrippa, he includes aspects of the production that we know were initially planned but ultimately not achieved (most notably the light-reactive etchings). Begos’ descriptions of the editions published are vague, particularly with regard to the $7,500 “deluxe” issue of 10 copies; he also mentioned “artist’s proof” copies at one point (and he states that both Gibson & Ashbaugh received their A.P. copies in 1992). Questions sent to each of the three collaborators for the article went unanswered. The printers of the etchings and the letterpress, however, provided some new and valuable details about the project via email and postal correspondence.

Perhaps the biggest mystery in the tale of Agrippa’s production is exactly what happened to the Small Edition, which was to have been issued in an edition of 350 copies. We know it was abandoned, perhaps even before the December, 1992 launch event in New York City. At that event Begos reported that copies of the Small Edition were for sale at the Met’s mezzanine gallery. (He also stated the Deluxe Edition was almost sold out, although we know that text and prints for fewer than half the planned 95 copies had been printed.) Five copies of the Small Edition can be traced, but they are not identical: one was issued with the printed sheets torn into leaves, the etchings reduced and reproduced with a photocopier, clippings from a 1938 newspaper randomly inserted throughout, and the whole thing stuffed into the case binding, like a folder (shown below). By April, 1993, the Small Edition is no longer mentioned.

About Agrippa… attempts to trace the production of Agrippa’s physical parts - the text pages, the intaglio prints, the binding, the box. Publisher Begos succeeded in attracting extensive mainstream media coverage for the project prior to publication, and these articles provide insights to how aspects of the initial concept changed or disappeared during 1992. The prospectuses and notices he issued notably lack bibliographic details like edition size and descriptions of the different states being issued. With access to copies of both the Deluxe and Small editions, interviews with a key participants in the production work, and cross-referencing a wide variety of interviews, catalogue descriptions, and print articles, a more clear picture of what exactly was - and was not - issued appears: Agrippa was published (though not exactly as planned), copies do exist (though there does seem to be much variety in their exact details and completeness), and we can trace for certain two copies sold on the market since 2010 (for wildly different prices).

"Begos has spoken extensively about why the book was what it was. Ultimately Agrippa, like many artist’s books, was an interesting thought experiment but the thing itself was practically inconsequential. The discussion it generated is almost entirely centered on the concepts it challenged – ownership versus experience, digital vs physical – and not at all on the design or the (written) content. The message was entirely in the (lack of) medium. The box was hard to store (it couldn’t be put on a shelf with your other books, upright); the book was simply a portfolio for the prints and disc – there was nothing to read; and for most book collectors the paradox posed by the project – to own it or experience it – proved easier to resolve by ignoring than engaging."

About Agrippa... consists of a main article (approx. 10,000 words) recounting the initial plans for Agrippa’s physical parts, and detailed descriptions of (and differences between) copies issued. Interviews with several key participants add context to the technical challenges faced, and how these were resolved (or not). The essay is accompanied by marginal notes with commentaries, expansions, digressions & sometimes subjective editorializing (like the excerpt above) on details, contradictions and inconsistencies in the main text. Numerous original photographs of Deluxe and Small edition copies are included. Appended are a select bibliography of other publications from Begos, a facsimile resetting of a prospectus of which only one copy is known to exist, and a detailed list of references. Here's the Table of Contents:

      Source Files 
      The Artifact      
      The Concept
    The Paradox
    The Publisher
    The Edition[s] As Planned
    Typography & Letterpress
    The Deluxe Edition [As Issued]
    What About the “Super-Deluxe” Copies?
    The Prints
    The Small Edition [As Issued]
    How Many Copies Are There, Really?
    Follow The Money

About Agrippa... is 8.25-by-11.5 inches, 40 pages, printed in full color, sewn in sections and put into a stiff paper cover. Fifty copies were produced, with most being distributed to people and institutions who assisted in the research. Fewer than 20 copies remain, available at $50 plus shipping.


Eastern Corp's Typographic Broadsides

In the late 1940s the Eastern Corporation, an American commercial papermaker, issued a series of elaborate typographic broadsides, ostensibly to promote the papers they were printed on. Each broadside displayed a typeface, with the designs being commissioned from a who's who of mid-century American typographers and graphic designers. To the best of my knowledge, there were a total of 26 issued. Individual broadsides from the series pop up often enough, but my problem is I have an almost complete set (25 of the 26) and they take up too much space: I need to find them a new home. In aid of that, and for posterity's sake, I'm posting here images of all 25.

Each of the broadsides (which measure 17 x 22") was issued with an 8.5 x 11" sheet with biographic details of the designer on one side, and Eastern Corp. marketing info on the other. These seem less common than the broadsides, but I have them as well. I include images of these for two broadsides that are signed/inscribed by the designer...

Baskerville designed by T. G. Bixler of Edwin H. Stuart, Inc. (Is there a connection to Michael Bixler?):

Bernhard Modern designed by G. H. Petty:

Types cast by Binny & Ronaldson of Philadelphia, designed by P. J. Conkwright ("born in Indian Territory in 1905"):

Bodoni designed by George F. Trenholm:

Bulmer designed by T. J. Cleland:

Calligraphy designed by Raymond F. DaBoll:

Caslon designed by Carl Purington Rollins. There is a second Caslon broadside in the series, with the word Caslon printed in red. I believe it was designed by T. J. Cleland. This is the only broadside in the series I know of which is lacking from this set.

Centaur designed by Bruce Rogers.

Cloister Black designed by Joseph Thuringer. I like Cloister, especially the italic, if only for how it looks in Nash's book about the Doves Press, but this broadside looks cheap and ugly:

Cheltenham designed by W. A. Dwiggins:

Fairfield designed by Rudolph Ruzicka (one of the few broadsides in which the type's designer was recruited to display his work):

Alternate Gothic & Franklin Gothic designed by Frank Kofron. This is one of the two I have that are signed (see detail):

Here's the bio sheet issued for Kofron:

 Futura designed by Kurt Volk:

Garamont designed by Ben Wiley (the bio sheet refers only to Garamond):

 Goudy Old Style types designed by Archie J. Little:

Grayda & Barnum (designed by Frank Riley, who was a disciple of Goudy, and issued by ATF) designed by Richard N. McArthur:

Janson designed by Fred Anthoensen:

The "lost" Goudy types (the ones destroyed by fire at the Village Press in 1939) designed by Howard Coggeshall:

Lutetia designed by Edwin & Robert Grabhorn:

Lydian (by Warren Chappell) designed by John Lamoureux:

Old-fashioned types (80 on the one sheet - who said never enough?) designed by Frederic Nelson Phillips Sr:

Perpetua designed by Helen Gentry:

Radiant designed by R. Hunter Middleton. I like Radiant. This is the other broadside that's signed (inscribed actually, in a beautiful hand, to G. H. Petty, designer of Bernhard Modern, above): 

Here's Middleton's bio sheet:

Square serif faces designed by Charles R. Jaquish ("descended from French Huguenots" !). This one ties Cloister in the race to ugly:

Weiss designed by good old Ward Ritchie:

Most of these are printed on a bond sheet made by Eastern, & it's not the greatest (commercial wood pulp). The sheets were originally folded for mailing (with the bio sheet), and some have started to fail along parts of the folds. But they're all complete, and there are duplicates of the Lost Goudy, Janson & Garamont sheets.

I have no idea what these might be priced at retail. A set of 20 ("hole punched in top margins" !!) sold at auction in 2004 for $270 (more than twice the estimate). My set is safely collected in the mylar sleeves of an artist's portfolio, with the accompanying biography sheets. It all takes up too much room, so they're on the block for $350 plus shipping. Lemme know if you're interested.  Sold.


If you want your own set of these broadsides, contact the Veatchs. I think they have a complete set. 


Those Backwards Scots

Possibilities for re-using paper from broken pre-1800 books has been a subject of some investigation here for a while. Not pulping the sheets to make new paper, but finding ways to work with, in, or around what's already printed on them. Palimpsests. More about that another time. For today, an oddity discovered in the pages of an incomplete copy of Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1828; vol. 2 only): a reversed apostrophe (i.e. single open quotation mark) used when replacing letters that precede those kept in a contraction. I'm sure there's a grammatically specific way to explain that, but here's a picture instead:

In the third & fourth lines of the first stanza: that_s. The open single quote replaces the letter i. First line of third stanza: I_ll; the quote replaces wi. Conversely, in the first line of the second stanza, wi' uses the usual apostrophe to replace th. Likewise all of the possessives use the apostrophe.

Here's a page with some more examples. 

Looking closely at the reversed apostrophe/open quotation, it appears to be an inverted comma pressed into service. It doesn't sit at the same level as the apostrophe, and the tail's a bit longer and thinner.

This probably isn't at all unusual for people who know anything about the printing of Scottish poetry in the 18th and 19th centuries, but he's not around right now. Otherwise, the book is admirably set and printed, by William Aitken, in what might be called an early transitional roman. The Notes at the back of the book are set in the same face at a smaller size, roughly 8 point, which remains remarkably legible. The paper, though suffering from some foxing in one section, is a lovely cream wove of approximately 90 gsm.


Look what I scored for a song on ebay while writing up this post: a lovely batch of FJ Head handmade paper. The Internet isn't all bad.


Just Look at Some Pictures This Week

A heavenly monkey shvitz near Nagano. Need to get one of these signs for the new studio (pix courtesy Stephanie Breck, friend of a friend):

This single photo should explain why it'll take Claudia a few months to assemble and bind the 30 two-volume sets of Decorating Paper. Schnell!

Meanwhile I'm muddling through sewing copies of the Agrippa monograph & sticking on the printed card covers. Someone should invent a machine to do this. "While the collaboration’s initial concept – a digital text that irreversibly encrypts itself during the first reading, making it subsequently inaccessible, paired with etchings that degraded over time – and influence have been thoroughly examined by academics, bibliophiles and Internet trolls, the story of its actual production has never been told in one place" (from the Introduction).


A Weight-Gain Problem

I've previously acknowledged I have a problem when it comes to book presses. Things aren't getting better. Look what I brought home this weekend. It looked like a nice 8vo size in the Craigslist photo, but turned out to be folio - the same size as the two big ones I use for damping & drying paper. My new second-heaviest press. Not sure where it will live; under my desk for now, keeping my feet warm.

Things are actually happening around here for once. Printing of Decorating Paper has been completed, and everything's now in Claudia's hands. A few detailed design ideas for Harold Budd's new collection of poems are being kicked around. And my make-work project from 2014, when the studio was in limbo, is finally going to press. It's HM's foray into the exciting world of cheapo paperback publishing. (Not really.) A 40-page investigation into the story behind the publication of Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). Most of the copies will be distributed to the many people who helped with the research. Although the publisher, author and artist would not answer any questions about the project, a few other people who were involved did. I managed to answer the what, how, and how many questions that had piqued my interest. Kept me off the streets while the shop was packed away.