Image: “Taxco Cathedral” by Joshua Distler, Photo-etching from Sketch, 8″ x 11″
Bookbinding for Amateurs in Autumn
by Tara Deal
I find the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan surrounded by wholesalers of hairspray and hats. Everything in this city has its district—light bulbs, emeralds, orchids—but I had never thought there might be one for hair products. But why not. And so my knowledge of New York, if not of life in general, has increased, and isn’t that what I wanted when I signed up to take a class? I consider this a good beginning.
The creaking space is filled with what looks like torture equipment: guillotines, paper cutters, iron presses, hammers, and chisels. This is not a place for hobbyists, and I am grateful. Because I want to learn how to do something difficult. To be tested. It’s that time of year to learn how to do something new, to do something well, in order to have something to fall back on, maybe, one day. A book is as good as anything.
We are a class of six women. And we take a moment. To smell the glue and cardboard and leather. We tell each other why we’ve come here, to this class called Introduction to Bookbinding: to prepare items for a portfolio, to expand knowledge beyond basic book restoration (this, from a librarian), to change direction, to try something different. I tell the class that I’m interested in the beauty of bindings and materials. Which sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? No need to confide that I am looking for a form to pour myself into, or to try to explain my love of books.
And I don’t mean just those glossy new books that feel voluptuous as you stack them up in your arms. But also the small, odd books in secondhand shops with sloping floors. Where a graphic dust jacket can catch you off guard and old-fashioned typography speaks volumes. Books with secrets to spill. Books with gilded letters embossed into red leather. Because books are special, yes—both objects to fondle and objects to plunder. And if it’s true that all objects are just vessels of whatever meaning we like to fill them with, then books are overflowing. Brimming with the words we love to hear: scarlet macaw, ring of palms, whisperings among the stars. There are even sentences that address us directly, dear reader. Imagine the allure of a library.
But I don’t say any of this out loud, of course I don’t, to my fellow students, who are busy unpacking their tools and inspecting their scalpels. Rulers and razor blades. Cream-colored bone folders, for smoothing paper creases, cool to the touch.
And in the lull before instruction actually begins, I imagine some fine linen book cloth, ribbon bookmarks, carefully deckled pages, and handmade paper from Thailand with gold flakes. Think of what I could make. The smooth back of a book wrapped in silk. Pages of vellum. Maybe I will learn how to package things correctly. Put my words in their place. Even find a way to contain myself.
Our first project is a pamphlet, with a wraparound cover of handmade paper bumpy with leaves and petals. The kind of floral, flimsy notebook you might buy on a whim, as a small gift for your best friend.
Our instructor, an accomplished book artist, hands out huge, thick, creamy sheets of paper that we are supposed to cut down to size. The paper is as big as a table, but she doesn’t seem to think this will be a problem. First, we fold the giant sheet in half, then slice it with the bone folder. Put the folder, which looks like a squat letter opener, in the crease and move it up, keeping pressure on the paper in order to cut it. Then we fold the paper again, slice through doubled sheets, repeating this until we have a stack of small sheets the size of the inside of a book.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. The teacher rips through her sheets in a few seconds, but for us—sawing through the paper incorrectly, creating jagged edges and tears—cutting paper is difficult. And so she moves among the workbenches, showing us how to do it. Pointing out the first lesson of bookbinding: practice is essential at all stages. This activity isn’t immediately gratifying; we have to be patient.
I even write it down in my notebook: practice/patience.
We have to take our time with every piece of paper.
Not look ahead to the book it might become.
And so I do my best to focus on the task at hand and readjust my grip on the bone folder, a beautiful tool. Probably made of cow bone, if it’s cheap. The best ones are made of fish- or whalebone. Too expensive for beginners. Newfangled ones are made of Teflon, but some bookbinders think these are not as good as bone, which molds to fit your grip after years of using it. And the bone keeps absorbing oil from fingers (thereby keeping the paper spotless) until its pores are full and the folder is as translucent as skin. I’m not sure what to do at that point, and I want to ask the instructor if I’ll need to buy a new one just as the old one has memorized my hand. But will it ever come to that? How much time do I have?
When I finally have a nice pile of deckled-edge pages, I use an awl to punch holes through the crease in the middle of the stack, so that I can sew up and down the spine with linen thread rubbed with beeswax, attaching the pages to the flower-petal-embedded cover.
And then: what to do with my first, soft, small book? Use it for grocery lists, keep it in my purse for random notes? For a while, I went for a walk every day, with an eye open for something odd, just so I could write it down. This notebook would be good for that. But I have second thoughts. I don’t want to ruin the pristine pages of my first blank book with the blunders and mistakes of something spontaneous.
I don’t want to destroy the potential with something inconsequential.
But who can say?
An ice cream cart left over from the summer. Black ink on dirty white says what was once inside: mango coconut raspberry rainbow.
An accordion book, which sounds simple enough, is just one long sheet of paper folded over many times, with the end pages glued onto hard cover boards. No sewing involved. Accordion books were traditionally used for Buddhist sutras or to display calligraphy samples. Today, there are instructions online for how to create them in order to showcase Thanksgiving dinner recipes or travel photos.
For our project, each cover board is wrapped with book cloth on the outside and decorated with endpaper on the inside. We see a sample before we start, and it’s quite nice, with a ribbon tie.
But first, the folding.
Precision is more necessary now than before. The deckled edges of the cover in the first project—those soft, irregular ruffles—hid any pages that weren’t exactly squared off. But now we must match up the corners precisely, as we take up the paper and keep folding it over. If the folds aren’t even, then the book will look lopsided when we’re done, like a Slinky that has fallen over. And so I fold the long rectangle of paper in half, line up the corners, smooth the crease with the bone folder. Open it up, turn the paper over, take up the middle crease and drag it over to the left edge to create another fold, smooth that one, then drag over the right edge and fold it down on top of all that. Keep going like this until I have the width of the book I want. Matching up the edges gets harder as the stack of folded paper gets thicker, and I begin to think that one corner off, maybe, won’t really matter, so I keep going, folding and creasing. But then, at the end, that one wrong corner is all I notice. The pages don’t align. The book I’d had in mind has not materialized.
And a sloppy accordion must be thrown out. Because, when done right, bookbinding is invisible. A reader with the finished book in her hand shouldn’t notice all the work that went into making it. (She shouldn’t have to worry about all the other ways this thing could have unfolded.)
So I start again, with a new long sheet. With the hope of doing something so well that the work speaks for itself, and no one has to deconstruct it.
I cover my boards with a map of Italy, muted greens and calm teals and touches of bright yellow that match my interior, accordion-folded pages. My wraparound ribbon, threaded through the back board, is dark blue. It all ties together. The ribbon tie is optional, according to our instructor, and the book is functional without it. But for me the ribbon is the best part, almost—creating a closed system, a small mystery, an interior design. Something that takes at least a little work on the reader’s end to open up.
Inside narrow stores in the garment district of New York, boxes are piled up like cardboard skyscrapers, stacked to the ceiling with trimmings. Each box has a sample stapled on the outside. And so stepping in and looking up and down, searching for just the right thing, is as thrilling as looking over a wall of safe-deposit boxes without having to guess what’s inside of them. You can unlock Greek key motifs in gold brocade. Walk away with mink pompoms, tiny daisies, vintage grosgrain, angel feathers. Sometimes there’s a problem when you pull out a particular sample—say, a burgundy velvet ribbon dripping with crystal briolettes—and don’t know quite what to do with it.
Having no need for it. But hanging on to it. Holding tight. Beholden.
After several more classes of making pamphlets, concertinas and photo albums, I am ready to create a small, blank book. To produce it, I’ll sew a single pamphlet (maybe twenty pages; that is, ten sheets, folded in half) into a strip of book cloth that acts like a hinge and is glued at the edges to the hard cover boards. They will be covered with more of the same cloth. I look forward to sparkling green flyleaves and pine-colored endpapers.
And although I believe by now that producing a wonderfully square and beautiful book, all aligned, with no glossy glue smudges on the book cloth, is within my power, it is not a sure thing. Not even very likely. But the idea of the book pulls me through, like the waxed linen thread through the eggshell-colored paper. And when one book does, in fact, look pretty good, there’s the thrill of trying to do it again, and even better. The joy of repetition. The idea of abundance. Who wouldn’t want to fill a house with handmade books, quiet and elegant in their metallic patterned Italian jackets? They don’t need to say anything as they lean against the bookcase surrounded by their friends and relatives: conch shells and Moroccan vases, cocktail shakers, and talismans.
Just when I’m thinking all pages must be folded and sewn down the middle to create a book, just when I’m imagining a lifetime of doing this, I learn how to make a book from single sheets. A stack of cut pages with no fold in the middle. Now any pile of pages can be bound (to cause surprise and satisfaction). Of course, the pages still must be sewn together in some fashion, usually along the left margin through holes punched about a quarter-inch from the edge.
To practice this new technique I work on a cheap copy of a book of D. H. Lawrence poems. I strip off its paperback cover and put on a lovely ivory hardback. The endpapers are cream, with pressed leaves. There is a poem inside called “Snake.”
But I haven’t had time to read the poem, and who knows if the cover does it justice. The ugly paperback cover certainly wasn’t going to lure a reader into Lawrence’s lair of words. Mine might, I think, as it sits on my shelf at home, waiting for the moment to strike someone drawn to the nubby paper peacefulness.
Then to sit and read someone else’s writing, under the illusion of communication, which I like to think is something Lawrence himself might have said.
But for now, back to work. Back to working with blank pages, which eliminates for the moment the problems of form versus content, of style over substance, of making all parts of a book cohere as if it were a small paradise for someone else to enter.
And when the day is over, we each have several more books to take home, wrapped up, in the bag.
My fellow students and I crowd into the old elevator, too tired to make small talk. We head out, in different directions, like hunters surveying our intersections looking for something to trap. Between two covers.
Several teenage boys take a large snake out of a burlap bag in order to impress a group of girls. I don’t hear what they say as I walk past, fast, and into a bakery supply store, where I linger over sugar rosebuds, candy molds the size of fingernails, and tins of edible gold dust. I imagine gilded book edges. Pages full of decorations and messages.
Practicing our French stitches and kettle stitches and slip knots, we learn how to sew several pamphlets together into a stack to make a good, thick book block. Then I sew in and out along the outside of the spine, through the creases where the pamphlets are folded, joining them all together. Making patterns with the thread. This kind of book can be any width, any height. As huge or as miniscule as I want. And it’s a comfort to stack up the sections, to sew each one onto the pile of others, creating an accumulation. It’s nice to get into a groove. To think about things. To get a feel for how books, at least, are made.
I fantasize that I might become some kind of artist who is self-sufficient, who can make whatever she needs, when she has to. Someone who could fill a room with books.
I choose a bright blue cloth for the back and the spine, but I will cover the front board, for the most part, with an orange paper printed with metallic Japanese goldfish.
But now I’ve made, I have to admit, several obvious mistakes with this book I’ve come to love so quickly. The endpapers are not pasted down evenly (unfortunately). And I’ve had to add a patch of book cloth on the inside cover to hide a bald spot—where I had sliced off too much of the cloth before turning it over. Between the endpaper and the book cloth, the cardboard was visible—and horrible. There are glue spots, tiny pinpricks of light, on the back.
Even so, I haven’t ruined this book. At a certain angle, it might be beautiful. And it can still be useful. It would make a fine daily journal. Besides, other people are too busy with their own troubled projects to say anything about this one.
And all of these problems can be corrected, later, in another version. If I practice patience and keep gathering, binding, going.
Books I no longer want I put in the trash. But I hope someone takes them, that they don’t go to waste. Later I see one of my books on the sidewalk for sale. I almost buy it back, but I look away.
From the stockpile of blank books I’ve been creating at home, I pick my next journal. I am not someone who has to use the same kind of journal year after year. My early diaries were oversized faux leather volumes with fake gold scrollwork that my father got free somewhere and had no use for. They seemed magnificent and appropriate. (In 1985, age 20, I wrote: “I want to work my life up into some final product so that I and others can look back on it as a finished, polished piece of art.”) I later moved on to delicate, feminine floral journals, then to the minimal black books that I hoped revealed nothing at a glance about my character. (1995: “What have I done and learned?”)
Then back to color—bright green velvet, vermilion—at a time when people wore electric blue turtlenecks with black leggings. (2004: “It is a beautiful, blue starry night, and I’m thinking of taking an abstract painting course.”) Then on to a pale, pale pink leather journal that was a gift from a friend. Simply constructed of soft leather with pages sewn down the middle. I could make that, but first I’d have to buy the leather, which is expensive and sold by the whole skin, and I don’t really have room for that kind of thing in the apartment. And then I’d have to scrape the inside of the skin with a razor blade, to thin it before bending and folding, which creates a leather dust like the fine mist of soot that blows over my sofa whenever I leave the window open.
That’s what I write in my journal.
The pages are thick and sewn well: they fall flat on the table. I can feel the fine workmanship, the exquisite materials. (The city is crystalline and still.) The cover is a mix of lavender book cloth and an intricate yuzen paper of purple orchids. I have learned my lessons, and this is a good blank book.
Although now it seems that what I really wanted was one that was overfilled, fulfilling.
Something to read. That will tell me.
How to proceed.
What to make/do.
What else is out there.
I hear experts on the radio say that the shape of paper will last forever and in a million years, you can still have it, to hold—some book like a brick of charcoal. But the print will be long gone, of course, sentences served. And the swirls of customized fiddlehead fonts won’t even be fossils. Not any longer. Any wisps of love stories once cherished will have been released, and then the mystery. The mystery will not have been solved, and those secrets now will never be revealed. In invisible ink. One dark and stormy night. When someone pretended to believe—remember?—in the luxury of both fantasy and science fiction. As if we could have it all. Because stranger things have happened. To one enchanted reader.