Friday, 21 October 2011

The Power of Craft

Tomorrow I will be at the Vancouver Wayzgoose, so of course I need cards. I was told that the cards I hastily printed at home were the ne plus ultra of dorkiness (not because of the design but because of the perforations around the edge), and I must do better.

I thought of printing the cards onto heavy art paper and cutting them out myself (no perfs), but my laser printer needs to wind the paper around the drum and of course the paper was too heavy and it jammed. Never mind, I am obstinate and I am a bookbinder and I have cold mix paste ready to my hand. So I have just printed my cards onto 24-lb laid paper and pasted the paper onto the heavy art paper for a duplex card.

I have no idea if this process is going to work, and if it does the cards may still offend the world at large, but I think they'll be cool. If they work. If not, anyone who can track me down at the Wayzgoose is welcome to a home-printed card with perforations around the edge. I'll have lots.

And I have been thinking about the power of craft. If I want business cards, I am not defeated by not having any money or not being near a store that carries exactly the kind of cards I want. I have printed these on my laser printer, but I could have printed them with my own type, or stamped them with foil, or I could have hand-written them or stencilled them or stamped them with a potato. I have options, and that gives me power.

Similarly, if I can get hold of a raw fleece I can turn it into a sweater. I can take linen thread and turn it into lace. I can take flour and sugar and milk and turn it into cake. Being able to change your surroundings, to turn what you have into something else, is a source of great power.

We craftspeople are wizards.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Back to the Future

Why are books - the physical object - important to anyone in this day and age? Back in my childhood, books were the repository of all knowledge. They were comparatively expensive and most people didn't have a lot of them. If you wanted had to write a school report on Cornwall, you went to the school library and looked up Cornwall in the encyclopedia, wrote down in your own words what the encyclopedia said, and that pretty much was all you were expected to do. Or, really, all you could do - unless you trekked downtown to the big main city library that had other books about Cornwall, and that took up a whole Saturday and yeah, right, I'm really going to do that. Once you had what the Encyclopedia said, why would you bother? I was one of those goody-two-shoes A students so I would sometimes look up Cornwall in two different encyclopedias in the school library (we had three sets)  to see if one had more information than the other, but in my world that was stepping pretty far into academia and my social standing was in jeopardy.

Today, of course, if you want information on Cornwall you type it into Google and in .15 seconds you get 73,300,000 hits. We are inundated with information, and it is always there - the Internet is our own giant library - so why do we need to own any book at all?

Well, there's serendipity. On the Internet you get what you ask for, and only what you ask for. There is little chance that, browsing through the library stacks on the subject of Cornwall, you should run across a book on Cheshire, become fascinated with a photo of half-timbered houses on the cover, and soon find yourself leaving the library (or bookstore) with "The History of English Architecture" or "Life in An Elizabethan Town", and subsequently learn about all kinds of things you never thought you were interested in. You could do that on the Internet, but it turns out we don't. To get those 73 million hits down to something manageable we search by such fearsomely narrow descriptions ("Cornwall tin mines death 1732") that we dip into the information pool just long enough to fetch out the bit we need, and move on. So we can wind up with a lot more information than we used to have about some very narrow topics.

I took a workshop a couple of weeks ago, on social media and how the Internet is changing our brains. The older people in the workshop tended to reminisce about the good old days, before the Internet, when we were all literate and pure, and the younger people were rather preening themselves with the knowledge that according to the experts, as a result of their Internet exposure their brains would be changed forever. We were told that because people only spend a few seconds deciding whether or not to click on a particular link that is brought up by their Google search, that means people have some sort of Internet-induced ADHD. We were invited to remember how much time we usually spend dipping into a book before deciding whether to buy it, and to compare it to those few seconds those modern, brain-altered people spend making their decision.

I disagree. I think they're comparing apples and pomegranates.  The SERP is not the same thing as a book. The SERP is like when you go into a bookstore and you ask "Where can I find books about Cornwall?" and they direct you to a section of the shelves, filled with fifty or sixty or a hundred books under the broad heading of "travel" or "Europe" depending on how many books your bookstore has in stock and how broadly they've grouped them. The Internet's SERP has 73.3 million books in it - if that were your experience in a bookstore, how long would you spend on each book? Exactly.

Now, say you're in your bookstore faced with only 30 books in the "Travel - Europe" section. What do you do? You pull out this one and that one depending on the title, and maybe the colour of the cover - what you can see from the spine. That's the equivalent of the few seconds deciding whether to click on a link. Then you glance at the cover.  If it doesn't turn you off (and you can be turned off by the colour of the illustration or even the typeface) you may look at the back cover or dip into the text. That's the equivalent of the few seconds you give each link on your Internet search, once you've clicked on it,  before you hit the "Back" arrow and take a look at the next link.

When you decide that a website you've reached from the link has the information you want, you spend just as much time on it as you would in the bookstore deciding whether to buy your book. And if you really like that website, you bookmark it or even follow it so new updates come directly to you.

That kind of time investment is maybe even more than you give the hard-copy book you bought in the store. So my conclusion is: are our brains being changed forever as the futurists (and future-fearers) claim? No. It's the same comfy old brain. We're using it in familiar ways. Not to worry.

By the way, today there's an interesting blog post on our decision-making via book cover. If you're designing a book cover, remember it's not all about what you think are pretty colours. It's marketing. It's about what your audience will choose to pluck from the shelves, or click on.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Books - What's the Point?

My brain has a lot of time to think this morning, because I am folding and pricking and pressing a batch of 25 new books. Once you've got that set up your mind has a lot of time to wander. And of course I am thinking about books. It's what I do.

Lately I've been attending classes on How To Start A Small Business, and of course they want to know what I think is worthwhile about bookbinding. I can see they don't think anything is, and it's my job to convince them otherwise. So I've been thinking about my relationship with books a lot, and so my next couple of posts are going to be about value.

Bookbinding does a couple of things - it preserves and repairs books, and keeps them free from harm for a longer time. Fine binding also turns the book into a luxury object - something most people will make an effort to preserve.

For me, books are not only the words on the page. Old books are little pieces of history. They are stories that are not told elsewhere - the book itself is the story.

I just reached out a plucked a piece of the early 18th century off my bookshelf.

It is a small volume - about 4" x 6" - bound in sprinkled calf, and rebacked but I'm not sure when. Whoever did the reback tried to mimic the original style but couldn't resist adding double gold lines that probably wouldn't have decorated the original boards. Those lines are sort of worn off but that could easily be faked and I can see the rebacking binder made an effort to make the lines and the new spine look early, but the details aren't quite right.

Inside, I see the pastedowns are original. If the reback had been an early one they would have cut the flyleaf back to a stub and folded it over onto the inside board, which is a kind of mutilation that is frowned upon nowadays. Whoever did the reback added a separate strip of paper, toned to go with the original. So they're not hiding the reback but they're trying to make it look natural, which means the reback was, again, later rather than earlier. See? I've just looked at the thing and already it has a story.

Now, the book itself. The title on the spine is "Mottoes Etc." because back in those days the label wasn't the Official Real Title of the book, but just enough words for the owner to differentiate it from the other books he owned. The actual title: "The Mottoes of the Spectators, Tatlers, and Guardians, Translated into English" is given on the title page, along with one of my favourite parts of any old book - the printer's note:

For "Mottoes Etc." was printed in London for Richard Wellington, at the Dolphin and Crown without Temple-Bar. And lastly, it was printed in M.DCC.XXXVII. That is 1737, and I am interested to note that they divided up the date into millennium, hundred-years, and less-than-a-hundred-years using periods. I file that information away in my trivia collection, and go back to contemplating Richard Wellington and whether he had a good time at the Dolphin and Crown without Temple-Bar (early typography is fun, too) and wondering whether the D&C was a pub. It sure sounds like a pub, and I often do business out of the local coffee-shop, why shouldn't Richard Wellington have worked out of a pub? Or maybe it's just that the Dolphin and the Crown were the signs he used on his own storefront. Or maybe the D&C was also a rooming house and that's where he lived.

Then I turn to the preface, which kindly tells me why the book was written, and I find another story. "Many of my Fair [ie, female] Readers, as well as very gay and well-received Persons of the other Sex, are extremely perplex'd at the Latin Sentences at the Head of my Speculations; I do not know whether I ought not to indulge them with Translations of each of them."

So here's another little footnote to history. I knew the newspapers in the title - The Guardian, the Tatler, and the Spectator - were re-published in several editions and no doubt you can find them on the Internet - but how many have heard this story? That there were so many people asking what the Latin phrases in those newspapers meant that they wound up being published in their own book? We don't often see Latin in books any more, but when we do we assume that way back when books were printed in Latin people were so well-educated they could read those books. Not women, of course, but apparently a lot of "well-received" men, too, couldn't figure them out - or at least not well enough to be sure of the meaning. Interesting social history side note.

Whenever I pick up my little book I can find out something. Turning randomly, I can read Latin (because who can ever get enough Latin, right?) like "Quid de quoque viro, & cui dicas, saepe caveto" which I am told means "Take heed of whom you speak, and what it is, Take heed to whom" Very true and useful, I'm sure, but more just fun for me to read.

Plus, in 18th-century style, this book is stiff with ornaments. Those are decorative stamps used in printing to fill in odd pages ends or mark the beginning or ends of chapters or divisions. A story and Latin and a lot of pictures! All in one little volume.

Of course I love it. Of course I want to take care of it. I am glad somebody thought enough of this book to save it from the ravages of time. I think a lot of it myself. And that is why bookbinding will continue.