For centuries a small number of writers were confronted by many thousands of readers. This changed toward the end of the last century. With the increasing extension of the press, which kept placing new political, religious, scientific, professional, and local organs before the readers, an increasing number of readers became writers…. [T]oday there is hardly a gainfully employed European who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other comments on his work, grievances, documentary reports, or that sort of thing. Thus, the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character. … At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer.
– Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936)
You’d think the field would be exhausted by now. After centuries of meticulous bookmaking, you wouldn’t expect to hear about a new bookbinding technique. But that didn’t stop Sheila Summers from binding a book in an all new way. Though her method has no trade name (yet), Summers reports,
I developed this technique myself -- it is not a traditional method for bookbinding. … It is not as complex as traditional case bindings, but still fairly durable. … My method doesn’t require special skills, tools, equipment or materials. The equipment for traditional binding is expensive, even the home-made versions may be unpractical for a person who only wants to do this as a craft project.
The basic materials you’ll need include fabric for the outside covering, ½ yard of heavy-duty paper-backed fusible webbing, heavy weight thread, a small sewing needle, two pieces of matting board, craft glue. (Be advised: Glue guns and glue sticks are not suitable!) Summers says you’ll also need 25 sheets of 8½ by 11 inch paper (she prefers the slightly heavier 22# paper, but standard copier paper works well), a standard file folder, a ruler or yardstick, an iron and an ironing board. All in all, it sounds like a humble, rather quirky affair.
Yet, for all its summer-camp ordinariness, there’s an air of commercial zeal, even aesthetic pride, in Summers’s writing. There’s a strange ambivalence about boasting, like a sleek sales agent, that a binding technique has all the benefits of durability without the burdens of expensive equipment and admitting that the technique is ideal for a mere “craft project.” But ambivalence – between ordinariness and splendor – is at the heart of bookbinding.
Books have come a long way. An online encyclopedia states the
art and business of bookbinding began with the protection of parchment manuscripts with boards. Papyrus had originally been produced in rolls, but sheets of parchment came to be folded and fastened together with sewing by the 2d cent. A.D. In the Middle Ages the practice of making fine bindings for these sewn volumes rose to great heights; books were rare and precious articles, and many were treated with exquisite bindings: they were gilded, jeweled, fashioned of ivory, wood, leather, or brass.
These words capture the central ambiguity of bookbinding. Books were invented as a dully practical means for storing information, but they would not settle for such meager ends. They rose to great aesthetic heights and became a centerpiece of advanced culture, a metonym for intelligence. But books have rarely been purely vessels of knowledge. Most people see books as the utilitarian devices they were invented to be. But ask any bookbinder and you’ll know the truth: a book is a work of art among blind critics, a gourmet meal among anorexics.
Grab a book. Not only are you holding a tiny estuary of the massive, ancient river of human wisdom, but also, less obviously, the fruit of centuries of master craftsmanship. The Victorian Bookbinders’ Guild, Inc. (VBG) asks, “What are the principle parts of a book?” Answer: Pages, Sections, End papers (blank or decorated pages between the text block and covers), Boards or Cover (or Case if made of cloth or leather), Spine (back), Foredge (front edge), Head (top of book), Tail (bottom of book), and Head Bands (colored strip at head and tail of book), to name a few. Bookbinding is as detailed as bloodless anatomy. The skeleton of a book is the section, which is “a printed sheet of paper where the printing is set in such a way that when the sheet is folded properly and trimmed all the pages run consecutively. Sixteen pages are common but there can be eight or twelve or even thirty two using very thin paper.”
How are a book’s organs surgically assembled? What’s the physiology of bookbinding? First, the experts at VBG explain, collate the pages and sections and then sew them together with any of a myriad of thread options. Next, tip on the end papers, glue the spine, and round the pages. Then, cut the boards, make and title the case, and, finally, glue the text block into the case. All of these particular steps fall under two categories: Forwarding and Finishing. Forwarding, a writer at the Dennis Gouey Bookbinding Studio explains,
covers collating, cleaning, sewing, backing, head-banding, putting on the leather, everything, in fact, that prepares the book for decorating and lettering. ‘Finishing’ comprises the designing of cover decoration, tooling of sides and back, as well as whatever decoration is done on the inside of the cover.
The more advanced student faces an array of strange terms and technical conundrums. How exactly do you want to bind your book? There is full binding (in which the book is covered in one material), half binding (in which the spine and corners are covered by one material and the rest by another), quarter binding (in which one material covers the spine and another covers the rest of the book), blind tooling (in which a leather cover is titled and decorated with a foil), and even the optional doublure (a decorative fill-in often pasted on the inside of the front and back covers of a leatherbound book). For commercial binders, even more options abound, including wire binding, plastic binding, glue binding, and fabric binding.
For the dedicated bookbinder, no detail is too small, no glitch too insignificant. One inquirer laments, “When sewing my text block, I find that the pages and the text block curls and does [sic] not hold square.” Fear not, the VBG book master knows best: “Before sewing, check that the paper has the grain running vertically. This helps the book to lay [sic] square and folds [sic] flat.” When faced with the apparently innocuous question, “What is the best universal glue to use in bookbinding?” even the most experienced bookbinder must concede the profundity of this riddle: “There is no easy solution to this.” (Fortunately for those of us without the luxury of contemplating the sticky mysteries of glue, archival PVA can be used for most purposes.)
Clearly, bookbinding is an intricate craft, with its own professional tricks and theoretical lacunae. Alas, the commonality of books smothers the richness of their production. Bookbinders are perhaps the least recognized artists in the contemporary world (surpassed in artistic ingratitude perhaps only by car interior designers). Despite their general obscurity, however, many bookbinders maintain a strong sense of their noble pedigree. There is often a strain of elitism among bookbinders, almost as if their obscurity proves they are the purest of artists. Bookbinders seem to enjoy working unseen, underappreciated, as they guard an ancient craft without which, they know, the world would never have survived. Bookbinders are the smirking stoics of the art world.
Inasmuch as it’s a common trait among bookbinders (but who could keep psychological tabs on such a subtle league?) their stoical attitude may have its roots in their greatest forerunners: medieval Christian monks. A writer for the British antique and collectible book shop, P&D Doorbar, notes that until 1450, monasteries had a virtual monopoly on book production. While the books were exquisitely handmade, they were, largely due to the economic and technological unfeasibility of producing many such books, rare treasures of a few parishes, monastic scriptoria, and well-off Church leaders. A millennium later, bookbinding has not fully outgrown its religious, cloistered bent. For example, the writer of the Dennis Gouey Studio’s introduction to the craft muses:
One of the first questions asked by the seeker after knowledge … is, what constitutes the difference between a well bound book and the ordinary book of commerce? It is surprising how small the percentage is of persons who have any definite knowledge as to what the elements of a good binding are. Knowledge on this subject has spread very slightly, and only among a very limited class of people; so it is always necessary to explain carefully to the inquirer just what makes this difference.
There is a decidedly Gnostic flavor to these words. With every word, “the seeker after knowledge” (the religious neophyte?) senses she is about to be shown dread secrets of the universe. How does one escape the evil world of “ordinary” commercial books? Heed well, and thou shalt learn. “The ordinary book of commerce,” quips Gouey’s biblio-Gnostic,
which is generally sold in boards with a cloth or paper cover [i.e., glue-bound], is really not bound at all. The book is sewn by machinery, and the cover, which is technically known as a casing, is also made by machinery…. The connection between this so-called “cover” and the book itself is of the very slightest nature. The tapes or cords on which the book is sewn are held to the cover simply by one thickness of paper, and in some instances by one thickness of “crinoline.” … A well-bound book, on the other hand, is properly sewn with linen or silk on linen cords; these cords are laced into each board in so firm a manner that it is impossible to remove the board without cutting the cord or tearing the boards to pieces. … The boards are then covered either entirely or in part with leather, which is a further strong connection between the cover and the book proper. … The book is then properly decorated either with a simple title or with whatever elaboration or decoration is desired.
“Really.” “So-called.” “The very slightest nature.” “Simply.” “Properly.” Read in a cynical light, these words betray artistic snobbery at its finest (or worst). The marks of a well bound book are known only by “a very limited class of people” – the rest are ignorant outsiders. Read in a more charitable light, however, a tone of philanthropic condescension comes through: “Pity the masses! They don’t even know ‘the elements of a good binding’!”
On either reading, the religious character of bookbinding is clear. Just as bookbinding has its own anatomy, it has its own ethics. There are devotional standards and artistic maxims:
The amateur who begins work with a view to becoming a good binder should in every possible way cultivate a liking not only for the special work he undertakes, but also for allied lines of art, and will do well to observe the following maxims:
1st.. [sic] Learn to care for really well-bound books by familiarizing one’s self with such bindings and with fine editions of good literature, worthy of fine bindings.
2d. To make careful study of the details of mechanism, beauty and adaptation of fine binding; and also to gain accurate knowledge of the discrepancies and dangers that beset inferior work.
3d. To make perfection the goal of every effort. To do one’s absolute best with every stroke of work, from least to greatest, and to condone no failures save through renewed knowledge, ability and effort to do better.
The Benedictines – or the Boy Scouts – would be proud. The bookbinders’ rule of faith is chipper and clear. Learn from the best-bound books. Study technique diligently. Strive for perfection from forward to finish. Repent of every binding sin, venal or mortal, and transcend it through renewed knowledge.
The soul of bookbinding is religious, even mystical, but what about its body? Though the religiously artistic ethos of bookbinding has remained fairly stable, the craft’s techniques and visible results have undergone radical changes in the past millennium. While bookbinding’s soul has been, for the most part, content to rummage for thread and vellum in monastic solicitude, its body has restlessly adapted to its surrounding environment. Indeed, the form and face of the bound book is and always has been a barometer for a society’s progress. The way we make books tell us a lot about ourselves.
Around 1450, during the monastic incunabula (“infancy”) of bookbinding, books were handmade and uniquely exquisite. But the craft was too individualistic and tedious to create a publishing industry. Thus, in medieval Europe, the book was a tangible reminder – a kind of sacrament – of both the literally manual nature of life and of the rare value of fine things in a world too long beleaguered by barbarian feuds, Viking attacks, disease, hunger, and political disunity in the wake of Rome’s collapse.
By the 16th and 17th centuries, printing technology had advanced with the use of intaglio book plates, and the first commercial publishers appeared. During the 18th and early-19th centuries handmade binding was at its peak. The craft had moved from secluded monasteries to the workshops of master craftsmen that oversaw every stage of production. Although books were still the almost exclusive property of the wealthy, chapbooks (small, cheap religious or comical pamphlets) were sold to the poorer masses. Publishers were often also book sellers in their own shops, but mass, mechanical production did not come into its own until the middle and end of the 19th century – which is precisely when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. It was during this time that the excellence of master craftsmen succumbed to the efficiency of information proliferation, resulting in terribly bound books. The former connection between craftsman and seller was broken by a network of private retailers. Bookbinding, like society itself, began focusing more on sheer production than the product itself. Books, like laborers, were but reproducible pieces in a larger economic machine.
By the beginning of the 20th century, as photographic techniques advanced, topographical books became common – just as society tried to keep pace with the global discoveries harvested by colonialism. It also became popular to produce Christmas gift books, which signals the beginning of seasonal marketing as we know it today. One major development in the tradition of “chapbook” mass literature was the establishment of the Everyman Library, which reprinted scores of classic and rare works – some of which that have never been available elsewhere – at reasonable prices for “the common man.”
Predictably enough, the onset of the First World War and the ensuing Great Depression, led to austerely bound, cheap books, in which artwork was confined to disposable dust jackets. Eventually, however, good color lithography became normal, especially in Europe. (Think of Jean de Brunhoff’s “Barbar” books.) The publication of Penguin books in 1935 was perhaps as significant for the preservation of quality bookbinding as the Everyman Library was for the encouragement of public literacy. Penguin’s early editions were stitched like hardbacks, and, like hardbacks, had their own designer dust jackets. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Penguin was an oasis for bookbinding, which quickly – but briefly – resorted to inferior paper and binding. By the middle of the 20th century in USAmerica – in the general postwar boom – book clubs were common and provided inexpensive reprints. Bookbinding thus achieved a precarious balance between the horns of its historical dilemma: well bound books versus readily available books.
And then, in a flash, it seemed as if the old dilemma was exploded. The supremacy of private choice and radical diversity propelled by the European and USAmerican cultural revolutions brought a liberating chaos to the bookbinding world – and to the world at large. “The development of modern presses and compositing,” says the P&D Doorbar historian, “meant that there was now almost no limit to the ways in which text and illustration could be combined on a page.” Likewise for the world, commercial limitlessness, sensual variability and diversity for diversity’s sake have become de rigueur. The paperback became – and still is – the dominant form of book. The age of hardbound posterity and traditional craftsmanship was over. The age of information, flexibility and low-cost utility had dawned.
Where does bookbinding stand today? It is being rent in two directions. On the one hand, the juggernaut of global capitalism has commodified information to such an extent that books are becoming little more than storage vessels for any and all information. Today, for example, a technique called “print on demand” (POD) is rising in popularity. Want a copy of Stanley L. Jaki’s exorbitant and hard-to-find Uneasy Genius, or that one elusive volume of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, both of which you’ve been hunting for months? Simple. Just stop by your local bookstore, request the titles, and enjoy a mocha frap while your books are printed and bound at low cost – in about fifteen minutes – in the back of the store. Would you like that hardbound or paperback? What color cover would you like? Would you like that gift-wrapped? (Would you like fries with that?) In 1936 the famous German cultural critic, Walter Benjamin, noted the increasing intellectual permeability between readers and writers, which the Internet apotheosizes. In much the same way, the barrier between bookbinders and customers is disintegrating. The barbarians are at the gate.
On the other hand, there is a chivalrous impulse among purist binders to restore – or at least protect – the artistic allure bookbinding has always had. Books are being shunted by mass society back into their original servitude to information. But the bookbinders’ unsung resistance is strong. Just as in the Middle Ages monks sought shelter in monasteries, and thus preserved the world, so today’s bookbinders find shelter in the excellence of their craft while the commercial barbarians wage war beyond the hallowed walls of fine crafts.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art…”
The basic materials Summers says
An online encyclopedia explains
The Victorian Bookbinders’ Guild, Inc. (VBG) asks http://home.vicnets.net.au/~bookbind/expert.htm#FAQ
Forwarding, a writer at the Dennis Gouey Bookbinding Studio explains,
For commercial binders, even more options abound,
One inquirer complains,
When faced with the apparently innocuous question, http://home.vicnet.net.au/~bookbind/expert.htm#FAQ
A writer for the British antique and collectible book shop, P&D Doorbar, http://www.doorbar.co.uk/books/bk3.htm
For example, the writer of the Dennis Gouey Studio’s introduction http://www.bookbinding.net/rebinding/history2.htm
There are devotional standards and artistic maxims:
Around 1450, during the monastic incunabula (“infancy”) of bookbinding, http://www.doorbar.co.uk/books/bk3.htm
“The development of modern presses and compositing,”
Today, a technique called “print on demand” (POD) http://home.vicnet.net.au/~bookbind/Newsletters/May2002.pdf
“The Victorian Bookbinders’ Guild, Inc. Newsletter,” Volume 21, Number 4 (May 2002), pg. 7
I was in Taiwan when this article was due so my access to offline resources in English was limited; hence the over-abundance of Internet resources. Eh, I get by.