Top positive review
5.0 out of 5 stars21st Century Ahistorical Bibliophilia: Almost without peer, and the flaws have been been exaggerated in number and degree
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on August 12, 2007
Two points to clarify about the most popular single-volume LOTR editions:
1) The 1991 single-volume Alan Lee-illustrated edition is the "centenary" edition, commemorating Tolkien's 100th birthday (cf. "centenarian") . The "centennial" edition won't be published until 2054, which will be the 100th anniversary of the original publication of Lord of the Rings. This is a very well designed and well printed/bound edition, built to last and beatufil. Its only fault is the absence of fold-out maps (it has the black and white maps printed in sections, often seen in paperback editions).
2) The reason for the broken type in the 1974 red leatherette "Collector's Edition" (and the occurrences of this number on the order of 1 or 2 characters on every 50th page or so) is more likely that the source text from which the negatives/plates were made and this edition printed was itself flawed and originally was some form of letterpress metal type, probably Monotype [a more 'modern' version of the old LinoType system], though depending on the date of that setting [up to mid-'60s, or even later] it may have been hand-composed. All metal type gets re-used, and becomes worn and some of it cracked/chipped over time. There were many books reprinted in this way through the early '80s (and a few publishers, such as Lindsay Books, of long out-of-print, mostly public-domain or 'gray rights' titles, still do this).
The problem is unlikely to have been caused by faults in photo-typesetting strips or process-camera negs in 1973 or so (when this LOTR Collector's Edition was first printed) since that process was a fully mature, climax technology by then, and quality control was simply outstanding (this was due to that extinct beast, the unionized master-printer, especially at Houghton Mifflin, a publisher with a very large academic textbook list, and an industry reputation for quality production; just look at any ten trade hardbacks circa 1973 and earlier, and compare any element of quality to any ten current titles and it's clear the the technology and practice of printing and book binding peaked long ago, and nothing of newer technology, especially computer technology has served the interest of producing better made books, quite the opposite. 2007 tech only makes it faster and cheaper, nothing else.
Remember also that it was the Allen & Unwin type-compositors who introduced virtually all the spelling and diction errors in both the 1st and 2nd editions, some of which have only finally been fixed in the 2004-05 50th Anniversary edition; and these were errors mostly such as 'dwarves' being "corrected" to 'dwarfs', 'elven' to 'elfin', and many others, primarily linguistic, along those lines; these would have been proper corrections with any author other than Tolkien, of course.)
As for the notion that photo-reproduction is at all like printing a Word document on a laser printer, then scanning it back into a computer as a JPEG or GIF image file, and finally printing it again, that is a facile and plainly inaccurate comparison. In short, unless one starts with a bitmap or similar low quality computer 'font', prints on low-brightness (<70) recycled paper via a cheap ink-jet printer, scans using a 75-by-75 dpi setting via low-end scanning hardware and software, and repeats printing as above, the result will certainly be nothing so poor as Jeff Sun describes in his review. Photo-reproduction via PC and peripherals or via process-camera, strips, and offset printing, can easily and does commonly achieve excellent results, provided the equipment is of first quality and the operator is skilled.
If anyone is obsessed enough to try this (as I clearly am), one fairly reliable way to tell whether a book is printed (at some stage) from some form of metal type is to use at least a 20x loupe and examine the vertical straight edges (particularly of upper N's, T's, L's, and E's) for irregularity. Metal type degrades in miniscule degrees after the first few hundred impressions, and will show this by cracking/splitting/chipping/warbling/bending and otherwise appearing NOT straight, sharp, and crisp (especially machine-set monotype/linotype which was all lead/tin, since it was melted down repeatedly; hand-set type has antimony and sometimes manganese in it, which makes it much harder to start and also casts more sharply; parts of letters break off but usually don't deform). It's a challenge to tell these apart, since photo-reproduction of letterpress can be hard to distinguish from original letterpress printing, if the latter is done by a highly skilled compositor and press operator. Some letterpress books show the impression of the type on the page, like a light embossing, from the force of the type striking the stock. Really good printing avoids this. So, if you have a book without this feature that does show feathering, breaks, waviness, etc. it may be either letterpress or photo-repro of LP, but if these traits are present it is almost certain metal type was used at some point in the life of the typesetting.
Two caveats to even to this: feathering alone does not definitely mean deformed metal type. Feathering,, or little veins and stream-like projects away from the character is often caused by excessive inking and watery ink, and also by cheap papers that are unsized (meaning a starch like substance is added during the paper's manufacture to prevent feathering and bleedthrough; newsprint is unsized and you can see how feathering works buy lightly touching a fountain pen to a piece of it for a minute or so). The other caveat is that some computer fonts, especially some high end ones for MAC typesetting systems, have been photographically captured/reproduced from books printed mostly before 1800, and their designers often deliberately retain some of the source type's imperfections (which are due mostly to the more primitive metallurgy of that era) to achieve a particular design effect. You might be surprised how much theory and psychology underlies type-design and typography; there is a lot. Need a dissertation topic?
This has become, I see now, a rant, and a really long one. First as a reader, then as a writer, then as apprentice in a letterpress print shop and bindery, I've always held the book as art-object or craft-work in very nearly as high esteem as the words contained within. I do think these issues are worth some ink, and I expect (or hope) that those interested in fine editions such as this so-called "Collector's " (Ugh! I so hate that term, it's like "deluxe" or "premier" and is mildly patronizing to the reader/buyer) edition of LOTR might also find at least some of the above ramble of interest and use. I do regard this red leatherette slipcased edition (ISBN 0-39-519395-8) as my favorite. It was this edition in which I first read LOTR, and though the Centenary hardcover and the HC 50th Anniversary editions (slipcased US and UK, different designs, both excellent) are on the whole and in most particulars better printed and bound, this edition is a nostalgia item for me. I also very much like the red binding, evocative as it is of the "Red Book of Westmarch," the foil-stamping on the spine, of the White Tree of Gondor, (which must be by either Pauline Baynes or by Tolkien himself) is a delight, and the two color printing, in spite of the ocassional bad character and slightly inconsistent inking, makes me feel like I'm reading an incunabulum. All of these speak across from the old world, though perhaps very long after the Third Age had concluded. I recommend it, highly and without reservation, even to a casual collector, especially now since it has recently gone out of print(ca. 2003-2005, around the time the slipcased, black bonded-leather, US 50th Anniversary edition [ISBN 0-618-51765-0] was published), and is very unlikely to be reissued. It (the Red) listed for $75, and Amazon last sold new copies for $47.50 last January. Now however, fine, used copies are nearing the original list price for the new, and new copies are nearing $100, and very hard to find. Buy one now, as soon as you find one available fine or better.