Next Score View the next score


    How the fanciest books are made

    And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

    A page from Moby Dick, published by Arion Press
    Toni Gauthier
    A page from Moby Dick, published by Arion Press

    The biggest publishing houses in America still don’t know what to do about Amazon, but at a rarefied end of the bookmaking world that you probably didn’t know existed, business is still good.

    The current issue of Harvard Magazine features a fascinating article by journalist Nathan Heller about Arion Press of San Francisco, “the only full-service letterpress left in the United States.” Put another way, Arion is the only publisher going that still makes books the way Gutenberg did.

    Toni Gauthier

    As Heller explains, the Arion headquarters contains an in-house foundry where lead is melted into ingots, which are used to create individual letters. Arion tradesmen set some books completely by hand, print the books on surfaces like “mold-made paper” imported from Germany, and hand-bind the volumes in materials like goatskin and mahogany.


    What kinds of texts merit such sumptuous treatment? Poetry, in large part. The founder of Arion Press, 77-year-old Andrew Hoyem, has worked with Helen Vendler, the Harvard poetry critic, to create striking presentations of works by John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney, T.S. Eliot, John Milton, and Wallace Stevens, the last of which was published in 1985 and contained original art by Jasper Johns. (Arion’s other books have included “The Big Sleep,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Thomas Jefferson’s Paris Walks,” and the 1775 guide “The Art of English Shooting.”)

    Get Arguable in your inbox:
    Jeff Jacoby on everything from politics to pet peeves to the passions of the day.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    One thing that makes Arion interesting is figuring out how to situate it: Is a $7,500 version of “Ulysses” bound in white, alum-tawed pigskin just another luxury commodity like a Rolex? Or is it a work of art whose price tag is only a vulgar proxy for its real value? The answer to that depends on how the editions transform the undeniably artistic texts they carry—whether “Moby-Dick” feels more fully realized in handset Goudy Modern on dampened Barcham Green handmade paper than it does in free kilobytes on a Kindle.

    Will Hasan be executed?

    Last month, after Army Medical Corps officer Nidal Hasan was sentenced to death, it was widely noted that the US military’s last execution took place in 1961. The gap seemed to imply something important about what Hasan had done—his crime forced the military to resurrect a punishment dormant for 52 years.

    In fact, military death sentences are not quite so rare. Currently there are five men on the military’s death row, and in recent decades a number of other death sentences have been overturned on appeal. Clearly, it’s not that military courts don’t hand down death sentences—it’s that they are no longer carried out.

    Why not? Victor Hansen, an associate dean at New England Law in Boston who worked on military capital cases in the JAG Corps, suggested in an email that their infrequency has created a self-reinforcing circle of doubt. With capital cases, he wrote, “lack of experience means greater potential for error that can result in a capital sentence being overturned on appeal... Closely related to this, I believe, is that appellate courts have a certain lack of confidence in capital sentences and subject these cases to a very high degree of scrutiny.”


    Hasan’s death sentence can’t be carried out, he wrote, before it passes two levels of military appellate review, possible review by the Supreme Court, and explicit authorization by the president. The process will take a very long time, and it remains to be seen whether Hasan’s punishment will actually end up being as exceptional as it sounds.

    How to graph a dance

    Of all art forms, dance may be the hardest to archive and study. It doesn’t reduce quite as easily as its close counterpart, music, to a system of universal notations. A collaboration called Motion Bank is trying to solve this problem by using motion capture technology to translate dance performances into a stream of vivid, visual lines on the computer screen. The project was started by choreographer William Forsythe; as The Creators Project reported earlier this month, it’s not the first effort to digitally capture dance movements, but it is the most ambitious. Forsythe’s aim is to create an open-access database that people around the world can add to, study, and draw upon to create new compositions. Forsythe uses Microsoft Kinect to capture dance movements; visual artists then translate that digital data into colorful, flowing lines, which appear less like an abstraction of dance and more like its essence.

    Kevin Hartnett can be reached at