Restoring disorder to ‘The Book of Disquiet’

Over the course of two years, printer Tim Hopkins used his free time (and his spare room) to create an extraordinary, award-winning edition of Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. Typeset and printed by hand using a tabletop letterpress, only 80 copies exist. He tells us why he chose to present the text as unbound fragments in a box, with no fixed order, and what making it revealed about the wandering human mind.

By Helen Babbs

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How did you become a maker of beautiful, unusual books?

I've always been interested in books and the written word. In the mid-1990s I started getting interested in printmaking, as a fan rather than a practitioner, particularly linocut and woodcut work. My brother is a heavy-duty bibliophile with an enviable collection of fine press and rare books, and through him I became more conscious of letterpress as a discipline. As someone who has nothing in the way of drawing skills, the possibilities of letterpress seemed interesting.

I found myself working in the building next door to the amazing St Bride Library, and I took to spending my lunchtimes there, before signing up to take a letterpress course. When I first started printing, I spent time making small things, particularly beermats, and then began to think about making something more substantial. The Book of Disquiet is the first really big project I've completed.

A person holds an old-fashioned slide showing an image of a boat travelling down a river. The slide has been printed with an extract from The Book of Disquiet.

Tell us about the original book, and its author.

Fernando Pessoa published very little before his death in 1935. Never completed, The Book of Disquiet was discovered in fragmentary form, and in no particular order, in a trunk in his Lisbon flat. Pessoa wrote using invented characters whose thoughts and lives he set down. The best known is Bernardo Soares, and Soares’ work is The Book of Disquiet.

Extracts from the Book of Disquiet printed on brown card parcel tags.

How did you decide on your fragmented, unbound approach?

I'm interested in making things for people to read, as opposed to purely visual art, but I'm also interested in disrupting the reading experience. Most people will tell you The Book of Disquiet is something they like to dip into, rather than read from cover to cover. With that in mind, I began to think about restoring some disorder to The Book of Disquiet, turning it back into fragments, and putting it back in a box.

I really like books with non-standard presentations. Two more-or-less famous books-in-boxes came to mind: The Unfortunates by BS Johnson and Composition No.1 by Marc Saporta. Both are sets of unbound pages in boxes, and can be read in any order. The fragments in the Half Pint Press Book of Disquiet are all printed on different things, from a postage stamp and a page torn from an old ledger to a pencil.

Allowing readers to pick out fragments as they please reflects the origin of the text, and encourages new connections between fragments that might perhaps fall far apart in a bound, ordered edition. Bernardo Soares was prone to letting his mind wander during long nights in his room, and this approach gives a sense of this wandering mind.

An unfolded, printed piece of card sits on top of a small, bright green box.

What's it like to read?

I wanted to create a melancholy sense for the reader of sifting through the relics of a real life. The impression, in the end, is the kind of box most of us have: full of things we have not, for whatever reason, wanted to throw away.

Most of the fragments in the edition have little or no apparent value – old receipts or stamps or baggage tags. But the fact they’ve been saved implies a value of some kind. That space can be a fertile one for a reader. I hope this edition of The Book of Disquiet gives them the opportunity to engage their imagination with Bernardo Soares as if he was a real person. I think the impact of this edition also relies on a human tendency to find connections and tell stories, even when those connections and stories don't really exist.

Of course the book relies on Pessoa's words too. There's a surprisingly large group of Pessoa lovers out there, and I've been struck by their fierce love of such melancholy and alienated writing.

A bundle of wooden lollipop sticks that have been printed with an extract from The Book of Disquiet.

How did you select and source the ephemera you printed on?

Really I just tried to keep things interesting as I went along; I tried not to do anything twice. The challenge was to find enough different stuff in sufficient quantities. If I could find enough variety, I could give a sense of writing Soares’ words and ideas across the everyday detritus of a life lived.

Early on I took 100 little circular coffee filters from our kitchen, and quite soon after that I found a set of 1960s-era photographic slides on eBay. The very different challenges of printing on these two things made the penny drop inside my head that each fragment was like a separate craft project, and I had to make each bit interesting in its own right, while also having enough variety in the whole box.

Finding 'stock' to print on became a process of having an idea, then buying or begging the relevant stuff in sufficient numbers. Once I had the items, I would spend time working out how to print on them according to size, shape, nature of the material, and only then would I begin setting and printing.

As far as possible I'd try to source things in everyday shops. The pencils I printed on came from Wilkinson's, and there's a little stationery shop just down the road from where I work that doesn't seem to throw anything away. I visited repeatedly looking for bits and bobs, and when I asked them if they had a box of transparencies they went to the basement and brought up one literally covered in dust!

I was happy to buy things online if they felt right though. For example, I had trouble finding interesting enough decks of cards in the real world, but I was spoiled for choice on eBay. But the best part was finding interesting places in the real world, like the shop in Spitalfields that sells every imaginable kind of paper and plastic bag, and seems like a survivor from a very different London.

Colour photograph of a tabletop printing press, and a case of metal type

What equipment did the typesetting and letterpress printing processes involve?

The printing was almost all done on an Adana Eight-Five table-top press, so named because the printable area is eight inches by five inches. In practice the printable area is much less than that because the hand-powered press doesn't generate much pressure.

The types I use most are 10 point Bembo, 10 point News Gothic condensed, 10 point and 8 point Univers, 10 point Baskerville and 8pt Baskerville italic. There's a fair bit of Bodoni ultra italic, too. The ink I use the most is rubber-based, which dries by absorption, so it's possible to leave the press inked up overnight without doing any damage or the ink drying. The downside is I can't use it to print on anything non-absorbent. For those kinds of jobs I use a hard-drying oil-based ink which dries in contact with the air.

As for binding, there's very little in the whole book, but some of the fragments are printed on several pieces of paper so I had to find a way of keeping them together: one is in the form of a little sewn pamphlet, one is joined with a treasury tag, one stapled, one wrapped in a little card folder, another is a selection of cards in a little paper bag.

A photograph of a  slim, A4 size, brown cardboard box, that has been printed to look like the front cover of a book.

What does letterpress offer as a technique that more contemporary types of printing do not?

At its best, letterpress gives an accuracy and clarity that no other form of printing provides. That's not really why people are interested in it these days, though! But I think they are interested in things made by hand, and in craft skills - that sense there's been a demonstrable human intervention in the making process. Fifty years ago 'good' letterpress printing left no indentation on the paper whatsoever, but these days most people buying letterpress work want to see evidence of the type sinking into the paper. Personally I think digital creativity is as valuable and interesting as analogue creativity: that is, sometimes it’s interesting and sometimes it’s not.

One of the problems with digital production in the visual arts, especially as digital tools improve, is the sense that you can do anything - infinite colours, shapes, dimensions. I find infinite possibility inhibiting. I like to have constraints to work within. Working in a medium that’s primarily about what you can do with little metal letters is constraining, but producing something interesting out of those constraints is rewarding.

Also, as someone who spends most of his working day tapping away at a computer in my office job, doing something in three dimensions, using my hands, and trying to fix physical problems, is an absolute pleasure. Making something I can pick up and hold is more rewarding than I can really justify.

How would you describe the final book?

An unbound book with fragments printed on ephemera, some found and some made. Or, if I think someone's praising it too highly, a messy old bag of spanners!

The Book of Disquiet (Half Pint Press) won the MCBA prize in 2017, a global book arts prize awarded by the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?, at Wellcome Collection until 18 January 2018.

About the author

Photograph of Helen Babbs

Helen Babbs

Helen is a Digital Editor for Wellcome Collection.