Monday, 28 March 2011

Family & Friends Specialty Bindings

The last little while I've been getting ready to go away for a few days, and making a present for the friend who is going to put me up. I don't know what books she likes, and what she has and what she lacks, or even what would be a good idea to give her. So I made her a box.

and I started to think that this is going a little far. And I started to wonder whether there have ever been professional boxmakers, or whether it's always been left up to the bookbinders to make fiddly little boxes that don't even have a textblock in them.

Bookbinders have always made slipcases and boxes - for most books. Heavy books need wooden boxes - bookboard just isn't strong enough - and I suppose those would be made by a finishing carpenter. But for normal books up to about 10-15 pounds, or 4.5 - 7 kg, the bookbinder is usually the lucky devil who gets the job.

Thomas Harrison, author of "Fragments of Bookbinding Technique" said there is no such thing as a cheap box. Hundreds of boxes the same can come cheap, but on individual one is always expensive. Customers always want a special box, and they can't believe that sometimes the box can cost more than the binding job. I used to explain it this way: when I make a slipcase I need 5 boards cut in 3 different sizes, while a drop-back box uses 13 boards cut in 9 different sizes. The 3-tiered staggered box above took 26 boards cut in 12 sizes. Which, as I said, is maybe going a little far - too far away, perhaps, from the bookbinder's purview, and you won't see me making these commercially. But for family and friends I'll go the extra mile.

Another family and friends specialty of mine is when I rebind a book that was not printed on folded sections, and turn it into a sewn book with folded sections. There are a couple of ways of doing this - the ugliest, in my opinion, being the most common method where you gather up enough single sheets to make a section, lock-stitch through them (like, with a sewing machine) and then sew them together through the lock stitches. It's been done for ages (the first one I saw was an "art book" published in San Francisco in 1906) but it's so ugly it makes me shudder. You can see the lockstitching and the sewing in the gutter; it's a rat's-nest of thread. Still, it is a useful technique to know and I have used it when making a Very Big Thick Book (22" x 28") where the paper couldn't be made into folded sections because you would have needed pages 44" x 28" and the paper didn't come that big.

But let's say your friend bought a little perfect-bound book that she uses all the time and it's falling apart. So you disbind it, and then you use hinging tissue to put the pages into sections which you then can fold and sew in the normal way. Sounds easy, but needs a steady hand and a lot of patience because it's really time-consuming. Like, days and days and thank heavens it's only 60 pages. And of course swell becomes a problem, because each page is now 1 piece of tissue's-worth wider at the spine. But the resulting book is so nice that I'll sometimes go for it.

Oh, and that box I made - if you've never seen one before, it closes up:

and then when it's closed it looks like this:
The little studs that you can see are optional - I put them in this one to make sure the trays didn't come away from the case. I've also made it without the studs and that works for me, but then I just keep my endbanding silks in the box, so it doesn't weigh much.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Dustjacket Removal Redux

Yesterday I talked about why we should take the dustjackets off our books. Today, driving across town and listening to  "This Is My Music" on CBC Radio 2, I heard the host, international concert pianist Jon Kimura Parker, tell this story.

In the early 70s, still a child, he was taken to see a concert given by the great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, whom he met backstage. He asked for an autograph, and Rubinstein gently told him that if he gave one to him, he'd have to give one to everybody - but that one day, Parker would have Rubinstein's autograph in gold.  He was happy and excited about this promised treat, but realized a few days later that Mr. Rubinstein had not asked for his address, and that it was unlikely the autograph would ever materialize.

A few weeks later a biography of Arthur Rubinstein came out, and was promptly bought for him. He read it for some time, and then one day the dustjacket fell off.

And there, stamped on the cover in gold, was Arthur Rubinstein's signature.

You'll never know what's there until you look.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Placating My Conscience

Got another email from Oak Knoll this morning, and am thinking about how great specialist book stores are - even if you don't buy their books, which isn't really fair for them but that's life.

If I'm researching a topic, my first stop is to go to my local bookstore (it's easier to get to than the library) and see what books they have. But bookbinding - unless your local bookstore is huge (hello Powell's) your chances of finding something are small. The library - well, I can have the library deliver some bookbinding manuals from the central collection, but they're basic titles that I've either already got or don't need. Once you've scratched below the surface of a topic you need a wide selection of really obscure titles, and that's not the public library's mandate.

Enter the specialist book dealers. They're out there, lurking in the internet's ocean of information. They may have a hundred titles, or more, on whatever topic I have in mind at the moment. Plus, they very kindly type up a detailed description of the book and its contents. So I can hone in on the few books that cover the topic I want, without bothering anybody or making them spend their time helping out. So their listings are an instant online bibliography for whatever obscure topic I want to know more about.

Once you've got the title you want, I go online and see if I can get it cheaper somewhere else. I know it's perfidious, but I have no income right now. My conscience does poke me in the eyeball from time to time, but I placate it by promising to buy from my source whenever I can. And then I close my eyes and try to imagine wealthy patrons heading their way. I don't know if that works, but if it does and the store stays in business forever, it's worth a try. Or I mention them on the blog. Which may not work but it's the best I can do.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Dustjacket or Eyesore? You Be The Judge.

Let's talk dustjackets - and what's under them.

Dustjackets were originally strips of plain paper, wrapped around a newly-bound book to keep it clean until the bookseller had a chance to sell it. But a paper wrapping meant nobody knew what book was underneath, so dustjackets started to be printed with the title. Well - as long as you're running a printing press anyway you might as well put something more interesting on your strip of paper, so dustjackets began to sport brightly-coloured illustrations and bold lettering, and they became works of advertising art on their own.

All very logical, but with that change your bookshelf filled with quiet browns, maroons, and tans turned into a dizzying array of bold graphics and bright colours.

Which gave me headaches and a decorating problem.

I've got - well, I don't know - at least a thousand books. No, make that 2,000 ... make it more. I've got bookcases packed against every spare bit of wall space, and when I ran out of wall space I put two back-to-back, one across one end, and bingo - a 3-sided bookcase island. Trouble is, each bookcase was a major source of eyestrain, as all the brightly-coloured dustjackets competed with one another.

So one day, I took them off.

And what to my wond'ring eyes did appear:

This intricate 7" x 9-1/2" gold foil stamp was buried under the bright green garden-printed dustjacket of the "Reader's Digest Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers" for 20 years before I re-discovered it.

The colour of the cloth cover isn't clear here - it's a medium brown, nothing too bright. And the spine just has the title, stamped in the same dull gold. So to summarize: I had the choice of a gaudy multi-colour printed shiny plastic-covered dustjacket, or this elegant oasis of quiet beauty.

I'm sure you already know where I'm going with this. I took off all the dustjackets that could come off. And my shelves became restful and pleasing to the eye. Even my modern hardcovers had, for the most part, plain cloth spines with foil-stamped titles, some of them quite beautifully done.

Of course, some publishers are still my enemies. There's no point in taking off the bright dustjackets on your Harry Potters, for example, because the book underneath is exactly the same. So those books go on the shelves that aren't readily seen - the bottom shelf, or the ones in the hallway.

I threw the dustjackets away - at least the modern ones. I know book dealers who would cringe at that, because used books sell better when they have the original dustjackets, but I do not care. I bought these books for me and their resale value - if any - doesn't worry me.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Well, it's a start.

Just got a big fat envelope from the Alcuin Society. If you’re into books you should know these guys. They put on the only commercial book design awards I’ve ever heard of - the Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada. If you’re a member, each year they’ll send you the catalogue of the prizewinning entries, with input from the judges. If you’re studying book design you’ll do well to study that catalogue, and to go see the prize-winning books, which are exhibited in Canada and in some international shows.  And no, they’re not paying me to say this. They don’t even know I’m saying it.

My big fat envelope contained the latest edition of the Society’s newsletter: “Amphora”, which I would go on to talk about except I don’t want to turn this post into a fave rave and besides, I have other things on my mind.

I thought for Post #2 I’d go with my definition of a book. Definitions are slippery – you think you’ve got them wrestled to the ground and then exceptions pop up and start the argument all over. So I’ll just say what I think.

What I call a book is one of those things you find on the shelves in library. More properly called a codex, the basic form hasn’t substantially changed in the past 2,000 years. I see them as a protective information storage and retrieval system designed to handle text printed on paper.  It’s important, so I’ll break that down:

Protective: the covers protect the textblock. The beginning and end pages of the textblock are sacrificial (and therefore usually blank), and are intended to protect the actual text. The pages ideally have wide margins which protect the words from accidental destruction by handling, sunlight, mice, dogs, etc.

Information storage and retrieval: the information is contained in words which must stay in order but need to be accessed out of order.  So the words are printed in order on pages that are usually numbered for easy reference. And if you’re really intent on providing easy information retrieval you might include an index, table of contents, cross-references, etc.

Why the definition? Because when you look at a book – whether you want to print one or bind one or repair one – you need to keep all this in mind.  When a book has problems it’s often because the person who made it lost track of its purpose.

It’s nice if the covers are pretty. It’s great if they provide information or help sell the book. But if your idea for a cover is something that wrecks the textblock, I’d say you need to go back and rethink.

Maybe a cover made with chicken wire is incredibly artistic and clever in light of the book’s content – but is “I want this book to shred itself under the customer’s very eyes” really what you’re thinking?

Maybe it’s way cheaper to cover a heavy book with lightweight paper but when the covers accidentally rip off before the customer pays for it – is that really a saving?

Repairs. There are many schools of thought, ranging from the ludicrously over-protective to the cavalier, but that’s for another day. I want to go read my “Amphora”.

Monday, 14 March 2011

What, Where, Who and Why

Books. Big, fat, shiny ones. Little itty bitty ones. Modern and old. Thick and thin, hard and soft, paper and leather and cloth.  That’s what we’re talking about here.

And so, it seems, is the rest of the world. Suddenly, new technology threatens our good old paper and we fear we may be the last humans ever to know books – how they look, how they smell, the feel of the paper and the weight in our hands.

Now, I don’t particularly fear this myself. I’ve got an e-reader. It came preloaded with 100 novels, most of them classics, and I’m still holding on to my hardbacks of the very same books. I’m even in the market for more. Because a book is more than text.

Books are about illustrations and graphic design and types of paper and why you use one and not the other. Books are about typography and physics. Not the textbook kind of physics, but the applied kind. How the stress of opening the book and thumbing through its pages falls on some places in the book structure and not others and why. Why some books fall apart and why some can only be made to stay open with an axe.

Some books are about fine leather and superb decoration and others are all about sturdiness. Some are about bright colours and others are about subtle, delicate text.  A well-designed and carefully-produced book can enhance the reading experience.

That’s what this blog is about: the physical presence of books.  I’m curious, and I have some knowledge and no objection to knowing more.  As a hand bookbinder I have done everything from basic thesis binding to rebacking 18th-century bindings to fixing that glossy picture book from the 70s where the pages keep falling out. Six years of that means I have had lots of thoughts about papers and glues and structure, and I mean to muse on these things.

So who do I think is going to read this blog? Possibly no-one, of course. But just to start out, I'm thinking that you might be a student, whether just learning or more advanced. Maybe you're an artist who wants to make a book and is wondering where to start. Maybe you're a librarian or have a job taking care of some pile of books - yours or someone else's. In which case I want your job.