SAN FRANCISCO — Master printer Andrew Hoyem, the man responsible for a 33-foot-long edition of "Flatworld" and a round edition of "The World is Round," says he has always had a passion for literature's rare birds.
So it seems fitting that he has chosen for his biggest project in a 25-year printing career to publish, for the first time, 156 19th-Century paintings of Western American birds, accompanied by a biography of their creator: an unsung ornithologist named Andrew Jackson Grayson.
The book will cost $4,500.
"Grayson was an artist and a naturalist, and a pioneer in both areas . . . a self-defined man," Hoyem said with reverence, sitting in the San Francisco home of his Arion Press.
Like Grayson, Hoyem is a pioneer, a man who has written the book on the Arion style of fine printing and bridged the gap between literature and art in a way uniquely his own.
The two or three books Arion Press produces each year carry Hoyem's imprint on every page, a blending of medium and message quite unlike the paperback pulp of larger publishers. He is one of a small group of printers carrying on the ancient tradition of making books as craft, not as technology.
'Ranks With the Best'
He is regarded by many as one of the best. Arion Press "certainly has had a more diverse and interesting and more substantial output than any fine press operating in the U.S. today," said Sandra Kirshenbaum, publisher of Fine Print, a San Francisco quarterly that reviews works by fine presses. "It ranks with the best in the world."
Some, including Frances Butler of Poltroon Press in Berkeley, criticize Hoyem, saying he is content to print beautiful editions of safe classics rather than risky experimental works like those Poltroon has made a specialty. His latest work seems ideal for countering that criticism.
"Birds of the Pacific Slope," due out in December, is the most ambitious of Arion's 20 publications to date and one of the few to consist entirely of original material.
"It is far and away the biggest thing we've ever done," said Hoyem, with the nervous enthusiasm befitting someone hoping to sell 400 sets of unknown bird pictures for $4,500 each.
The attention to detail epitomizes Hoyem's style. The 19-by-25-inch plates are reproduced on cotton, acid-free paper made specially for the book to simulate Grayson's watercolor paper.
Captions for each plate have been typeset by hand, allowing greater refinement of the spaces between letters than a machine can offer.
A separate 500-page volume will accompany each set and will contain a biography of Grayson and additional information on his work. It will be printed by letterpress (raised letter plates directly imprinted on the Coventry rag pages) rather than by offset printing (in which an inked rubber cylinder prints each page), the method used by most modern large-scale publishers.
Hoyem can only hope the bare-throated tiger heron and the military macaw are as popular as "Moby Dick" and "The Maltese Falcon," two earlier Arion editions. "There is a great deal of financial worry that is connected with doing this," he admitted. "That is the most difficult part."
In all his editions, Hoyem aims to complement the text with its aesthetic presentation, forming a work with a value he said cannot be broken down into component parts.
Earlier this year, Arion produced a new edition of Gertrude Stein's children's classic, "The World is Round." Like the title, and in accord with Stein's unconventional "circular" prose, the Arion book is round.
Because the main character's name is Rose, the book is bound in rose-colored cloth, with rose-colored chapter numbers. And in deference to Rose's favorite color, the illustrations by Clement Hurd, who illustrated the original 1939 edition, are blue.
Who buys these tomes at hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece? The market, as one might expect, is primarily limited to collectors, libraries and the occasional readers so taken with Sherlock Holmes or the psalms of David that they must have them in their finest form.
But industry-watcher Kirshenbaum said the market for fine printed books like Hoyem's is expanding, and with good reason.
"It's this tactile and graphic experience that people get from these books that they don't get from TV images and video images and movie images, the mass media bombardment that we are all subject to," she said.
"Now people are realizing that you don't have to buy old books to buy beautiful books."