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.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Books, Binding, and Vancouver

Yesterday was Word on the Street here in Vancouver, and of course I went as I do every year. I go with a writer friend, who comes with me to see the book arts table, and then I go with her to the Romance Writers' table, and then we both hit the mystery writers' display. Then a general tour, lunch, a couple of talks, and revisiting our favourites. I always plan to join the Calligraphy Society and never quite actually do. What can I say? It's tradition.

This year I bought a book, "The Silk Train Murder: A Mystery of the Klondike" (all of us long-time Vancouverites know about the silk trains, or should), and was sorely tempted by this lavishly illustrated tarot-based cookery-based thing. Downstairs in the library ("Word Under The Street") is always the lair of the cartoonists, anime and e-zines. This year I was amazed by the quality of artistic talent, as otherwise normal-looking people lounged behind their display tables casually doodling out pictures I could never hope to even begin to draw. The calligraphers evoke the same amazement, only I always think I could conceivably learn calligraphy, while I never think I could learn anime. (There's supposed to be an accent on the last e of anime but I don't know how to type it. Kindly imagine it for me, will you?)

My big delight of the day was finding out that a group of enterprising book arts folks have applied to start a Vancouver chapter of the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild. They've already set up their own blog, and I'll be watching for the first meeting.

In the meantime, I've embarked on an entrepreneurial venture - more in the next post.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Better and Better, Bit by Bit

The other day I was doing a bit of bog-standard backing when I had an epiphany. I suddenly realized something about the way I was working and what I was doing that drastically changed how I looked at the process. I figured out a new way to do it, one that works better for me.

No, I'm not going to tell you what it was, because that would only interest someone who works with exactly the same equipment setup I have and that's not the point anyway. The point is that I had done that job thousands of times, and then I realized something that made one small part of the job easier and better.

That's how learning a craft goes. You chunk along at a certain point, and then suddenly one day you take a step up, and then you chunk along at that level for a while. Or one day you recall that you used to have a problem you haven't had for a long time, and you can't remember what - if anything - you're doing differently, but you do know that what used to be a problem isn't any more. Bit by bit all these little epiphanies make for better and better books.

What does this mean for you? Well, it means that if you want to be good at making books you need to make a lot of them, regularly, over time. If you make two books in Bookbinding 101 and six months later you make two more in Bookbinding 201 and then a year after that you make two more in Bookbinding 301 you may be able to say you have been taught advanced levels of bookbinding, but your books probably still aren't very good.

And you need to make different books. Not wildly different - as in one flag book, one photo album, etc. But say you have learned to do a standard sewn, rounded & jointed book. Take that one style and make many, many more. Make them with different papers of different styles and thicknesses. Heavy, light, newsprint, text weight, cover weight. Make them all, just in that one style, and make many of each, and you will learn a lot about binding that isn't in any books. Head down to your local used book store and get some of the older books that are actually sewn. Pull them apart, resew them and rebind them. Bind your newspapers and your pizza flyers, and know that every book you make, no matter what it is, improves your skill.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Teaching and Learning

I was folding some large sheets of endpapering this morning, and thought of my first bookbinding course. It was a home study thing, so I was watching a video and didn't have any direct input from the teacher, but I was sure if I followed the instructions exactly it would all work out in the end.

After running us through the whole saga of paper grain, we got down to actual work and she showed us how to fold a piece of paper. She said that if you started the fold at either edge of the paper you would get little creases in the middle, and dictated that you must always press the fold down starting from the middle and pressing towards each side. She said that several times, just to make sure we got it.

Until then I had been pressing from the side and had no little creases. Under her instruction I started pressing from the centre and soon had lots of trouble with creases. But I was paying for the class, the teacher was well-known and respected, and I wanted to do what the teacher said. I persevered, and eventually developed a technique for starting at the centre and folding towards each side and not getting any creases most of the time. But it wasn't easy.

Flash forward a year until I started working at the bindery. The very first day I was told to fold some large sheets of paper. Aha! Something I know how to do! I confidently folded the paper the way I'd been instructed.

Wrong! The bindery manager had apprenticed in London and worked in a variety of binderies for many years before moving to Canada. He knew his folding. Mine was wrong, wrong, wrong. How should I have done it? Exactly the way I had been doing it right at the beginning before I had any instruction, of course. The way that I did it where I had no trouble at all with little creases.

So was the teacher wrong, wrong, wrong? No, I don't think so. The teacher was telling us the way she did it, and outlining the problems she had had that she had solved her way - which is pretty well the only way anybody can teach. It is up to the student to receive the teaching, practice what they're taught, and when they've reached a level of confidence they can then decide whether they want to follow what they were told, or do something else.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Making Do

One of the things I love about bookbinding is that you can do it with so few tools. Sure, it's nice to have a press and specially-constructed beaded pressing boards but in a pinch, if you know what you're doing, bricks and smooth hardboard and knitting needles also work.

And it's nice to have a sewing frame that is professionally made of polished wood and a thing of beauty on its own. Sadly, the boss wanted $450 for it, so I had to leave "mine" behind when I left my job, and ever since I've been making do with sewing on the edge of a piece of hardboard and taping the sewing tapes to the back side. Which works fine for one book. Or two. But it takes time to set up, and when I contemplated making a series of books I tried not to think of the time that would be spent taping little pieces of tape onto the backside of the board, and flinging them back when they got in the way of the sewing, and otherwise fussing around with them.

So I went out into the world to have a little look-see, and this is what I found:

It's made of aluminum tubes, is very lightweight, and telescopes sideways to a maximum of 28", for those big books. And it has shelves - a number of them, though I'm only using two here. You get 8 shelves with it, each about 3" wide. As a sewing frame, it works great. The only problem is that you have to elevate your textblock somehow, but I have lots of books handy, and just shoved a couple in to support the textblock.

This tool didn't cost anywhere near $450. In fact, it cost $32.98.

What is it? It's an expandable under-the-sink storage shelf. I got mine at Bed, Bath & Beyond, but I'm sure they can be found any number of places.

Do you have any tools that are really something else?