It’s hard to say whether Old Geiger Grade, created by Jaime Lynn Shafer at Black Rock Press, is primarily sculptural or narrative. The letterpress-printed book is a straightforward codex, but its drum-leaf binding cleverly accommodates pages which have been excavated and built up to form a dimensional topographic map. It is among these geological features that the printed narrative resides, tracing a journey along the titular road – a stagecoach route to the famed Comstock Lode in Virginia City, (present day) Nevada. The project was created for the Black Rock Press Redfield Fellowship, which aims to link the press with other institutions at the University of Nevada, in this case the W.M. Keck Earth Science & Mineral Engineering Museum. As the colophon explains, parts of the Old Geiger Grade have morphed into modern roads and can still be traveled, part of the enduring legacy of mining in Nevada.
This historical emphasis is only a springboard; Old Geiger Grade is more contemplative than educational. To set the scene, Shafer leads the reader into the 1860s Wild West through the book’s outer elements. Upon extracting the book from its slipcase, the reader finds it folded into a paper wrap. Printed on the wrap’s inside front is a list of “Stagecoach Rules”. Presented without comment, the rules could be taken directly from some historical document, but they have a quaint charm that feels almost too good to be true. Regardless, the rules form an imposing block of text on the front flap, physically barring the reader from entry into the book. From the ominous prohibition against discussing “stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings” to lighter guidelines about gentlemanly behavior, the rules raise the stakes for the narrative inside. The reader is introduced to the Nineteenth Century with all of its implications for race and gender, not to mention a looming specter of danger.
The descriptive narrative within the book is subtle, especially in contrast to the list of rules. Two categories of text share the page: an account of nine stagecoach passengers, and some names of places along their route. The narrator and other passengers are left mostly to the reader’s imagination, a task which is aided by the characters (gentlemen, ladies, outlaws, and so forth) outlined in the preceding rules. The stagecoach is a liminal space, better suited to reflection than a conventional story arc. The reader never learns whether the travelers arrive to Virginia City and strike it rich, but instead shares in the hardships of the road and measures time as much through the rhythms and pains of the body as through their progress across the map (which fittingly provides no compass or legend).
The story’s understated style helps highlight the book’s most striking feature – the topographic layers, some hand-cut from the pages, and others built up with laser-cut shapes of paper. The choice of Rives BFK paper not only has an evocative desert color, but also an almost sandy texture and enough dimension to maximize the effect of the topography. The doubled sheets of the drum-leaf binding feel almost like a board book, but more sophisticated thanks to the printmaking paper (and, of course, the concept and content). Not all of the topographic elevations are rendered sculpturally; some are printed in a gold with enough impression to qualify as dimensional in their own right. These printed lines form a cohesive visual vocabulary with the edges and shadows of the cut paper pieces, and also integrate these landscape elements with the road itself, which is printed in a darker golden brown. This small color change is all that distinguishes the route from the land it traverses.
The marks that are built in relief, rather than printed, are planned carefully to activate the book temporally and spatially. The cut away elements allow the reader to glimpse the future and past, in turn. On the recto, the negative space reveals some future part of the trail. This preview is narrowly framed, adding to the sense of suspense.
“Our shotgun stands guard… without him, our lives would be in grave danger”.
Will the turn of the page reveal danger or some other surprise? Once a page is turned, the same space, now on the verso, sustains an earlier thread of the story, recontextualized. For instance, a description of the cramped conditions and hard wooden benches persists through three turns of the page, stretching out the narrator’s discomfort for the reader to experience. Like this temporal play, the negative and positive relief enacts in space the textual descriptions of the desert landscape. Read in scale to the printed map, a few millimeters on the page represent the “treacherous and frightening” terrain in a direct, tactile way. The extra attention these pages require from the reader seems to be its own form of navigation along a demanding road, though admittedly lower risk.
All of this succeeds because of the remarkable planning and craftsmanship that went into production. Where two layers of page are built up to form a cliff, a perfectly placed two-page hole is aligned to fit together just so, but with organic shapes and fluid placement, these relationships never feel forced. Though the reader knows that each additive form must be met with an equal subtractive counterpart for the book to close, the novelty of this sculptural mark-making never wears out. The minimalism of the blank paper, with its subtle cast shadows and delicate scorching from the laser cutter is beautiful in a way that complements, but also transcends, the book’s narrative and setting.
This beauty, freed from the utility of a proper map or atlas, is akin to highway driving through the Southwest; history is visible, tangible, in the layers of sedimentary rock, but open more to imagination than interpretation. Silver mining is a similar act of time travel. As people traverse mountains, or dig for silver, their struggles play out against the immense backdrop of geological time. The uncertain fate of the characters, now deceased for generations, against this indifferent landscape which remains today gives Old Geiger Grade a sublime edge that resonates beneath its beauty.