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Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press

Somewhere on the internet I’ve mentioned that Cantarabooks-Cantaraville was inspired by Hogarth Press, founded in 1917 by the writers Leonard and Virginia Woolf. Like authors before them—and certainly authors after—they began their small press as a way to ensure that their own works, and the works of their friends, would always find publication. As far as Hogarth Press’s scale of operation, the Woolfs’ ambitions were modest: a tabletop handpress, tools, lead type and a how-to pamphlet on typesetting were their only capital assets. Truly, Hogarth Press was a do-it-yourself strategy that would not have been out of place in the zine scene of the 1980s.

Their first publication, the first product of their printing labors, was a chapbook of their own fiction entitled Two Stories. Typesetting it was a slow, meticulous, painstaking affair: each line needed to be set, letter by letter and word by word; the type would then have be lined up to fill the width of the composing stick; and once an entire page was typeset, the block of lead pieces would have to be compressed so tightly in the frame that none of the words would fall out when the page was carried over to the handpress, which lay on the dining room table; finally, the press would have to be inked evenly enough so that, from page to page, the printing was neither too thick nor too thin.

It was an agonizing learning process, and Hogarth Press’s first product (now a collector’s item) displays a lot of initial mistakes—blotches, for example, and a few misspellings. But I want you to imagine if you can one of the greatest authors, one of the greatest intellects, of the twentieth century intensely involved in this labor—for it was Virginia Woolf herself who set the type, framed the lead and inked the pages—and excuse their baby steps.

Within six years, Virginia was adept enough at the craft to elegantly typeset, print and publish 450 copies of T.S. Eliot’s monumental poem The Wasteland, and two years after that several hundred copies of her own full-length novel, Mrs. Dalloway. A few years and dozens of titles later, the running of Hogarth Press would be given over to other hands and expand into a more traditional publishing company. But while Hogarth Press remained a tangible presence on the dining room table of the Woolfs’ ramshackle house in a London suburb, it was Virginia’s means to fulfillment, the kind of fulfillment that comes from exercising a hands-on practical skill.

Creating the actual unit copies of her press’s titles wasn’t fulfilling for Virginia only on a visceral level—it also affected in the profoundest terms how she came to consider writing and editing of course, but also the circulation of literature in general. It’s here, I think, where Hogarth Press and our press find their common ground. The new publishing technology has made it infinitely easier to create an aesthetically pleasing, readable publication—such as the one you’re reading now—and also to circulate it in forms never before conceived. As PDFs, Cantaraville as well as our ebooks can be read online, or downloaded and read offline at a reader’s leisure—even, at a reader’s leisure, printed out partially or entirely. The beauty of the page remains, whether on the screen or on paper.

With such ease of manufacture available, the selection and editing of works submitted to us can now take its rightful place at the top of our priorities. And as editors of Cantaraville-Cantarabooks, we find ourselves in the most luxurious position of all: having the means and leisure to be able to communicate, to enter the Great Literary Dialogue, with writers all over the world.