A Book’s Beauty

It’s easy to forget—or perhaps never fully realize in the first place—just what a treasure we hold in our hands in the form of a book.

Household Words, published by Charles Dickens

In times not too far past, books were solely the possession of the wealthy. As recently as the publication dates of many of my favorite nineteenth century novels, books were serialized in magazine format so as to be affordable to the common people. In some cases, whole villages would go in to purchase one copy for the local pub, from which a designated reader would enthrall the listeners in weekly installments. Charles Dickens was certainly a pioneer of such journals, and it was a profitable medium by which to introduce writers and their words to the middle classes. His now legendary publication Household Words was where equally legendary works like Cranford and The Song of the Western Men first saw the light of day. (Though I have heard tales of what a tyrant he could be when it came to word count—apparently that is why Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South ends so abruptly, as he basically told her to ‘wrap it up’.)

The history of books as we know them and the effects of industrialization upon their original craftsmanship is a fascinating one, and at times as fraught with peril and heroism as the best legends. Not only did the monks of the early Middle Ages preserve the written words in their keeping from barbarian invasions—often in the face of unimaginable violence—they established the criteria of true artisan standards in the bindings of the books themselves. From clumsy wooden boards encasing animal skin parchments, they progressed the work of bookbinding to a high art, to include elaborate tooled leather covers (sometimes studded with jewels) and meticulously-penned pages characterized by gilded illuminations and flourishing script. These books were so valuable—as irreplaceable as the lifetime spent crafting them—that they were secured with chains and heavy gold clasps (themselves often engraved with exquisite designs) within the monastery library. (I have to wonder at which modern developments they would be more amazed: the mass-production standards of industrial binderies or the cavalier treatment of library books!)

"Lucy! Lucy! What's that book? Who's been taking a book out of the shelf and leaving it about to spoil?" "It's only the library book that Cecil's been reading." "But pick it up, and don't stand idling there like a flamingo." ~ A Room With a View, E. M. Forster

The amazing thing is that not that much really changed in the binding of books from the monks’ early advances until the mechanization provided by the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of paper-making from the Far East in the tenth century opened new vistas of possibility and established the “signature”—or large sheets folded and cut to create smaller folios of standard page sizes—as the basic component of a book’s structure, a basic process that endures to this day. And under the stimulus of the Gutenberg press in the mid-1400’s, the creation of text leapt from hand-written pages or wooden block impressions, to the endless variety and availability of movable type. Book-making became the property of printers or the life trade of binders. And the concept of a ‘home library’ was born.

...A thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts of conditions. ~Elizabeth Goudge, A City of Bells

Though it would still take several centuries to streamline the craft sufficiently to make books affordable beyond the confines of the wealthy, book-making preserved certain careful requisites over the years. The signatures were pierced along the spine edge and sewn together with fine linen thread, attached to cords in much the same way as the medieval bindings. In later interpretations, these were glued to a strip of tarlatan or English mull which was then glued to the boards while the cords were woven into the boards themselves for superior durability. This mull is the ‘webbing’ that is often visible in the cracked hinges of old books—a dignified, if ‘natty’ mark of good breeding on the part of the book itself. If you look inside the front and back covers of an old book, or a well-made new one, you can see the ghost of the mull beneath the endpapers. The spine itself was never glued to the binding—this is a modern contrivance. Instead, the book was built around a hollow back, through which the surfaces of the cords were visible. This is where we get the tradition of decorated panels between raised bands in spines—they are merely ‘faux cords’, built up to resemble the originals.

The replacement of the leather cords with cotton tape in the bindings, and the 1820’s innovation of starch-filled cloth coverings, both contributed to the leveling of the field—it’s interesting to consider how little such changes may have had to do with book-makers’ benevolence and how much with seemingly unrelated political and social events. At any rate, cotton and linen became an affordable choice for the middle classes, and the book industry grew with the demand.

The Industrial Revolution flung wide the doors and made books the possession of the masses. A triumph for literacy, but, unfortunately, a travesty for the art of the book itself. Literally thrown together by machines at a dizzying rate of speed, all the old loving, careful craftsmanship and most of the fine materials gave way to mass-production and popular prices.

There were some, even at that time, that thought the cost too high—the loss of an artisan skill and a market potentially flooded with twaddle. With astounding foresight and knowledge of the dangers of full mechanization of society, they championed a grassroots movement devoted, among other things, to the renewal of integrity in the book trade by way of small, private presses.

The man at the helm was one William Morris. And the movement was none other than Arts and Crafts…

Kelmscott Press, founded by William Morris in 1891

to  be continued in Part Two…

11 Responses to “A Book’s Beauty”

  1. Kimberly says:

    How funny! I am in the midst of a Dickensfest. I love his writing and enjoy reading a long book myself. BTW-Wives & Daughters ends abruptly because Elizabeth Gaskell died before she finished it.

  2. Kimberly says:

    Oops! I misread the post. Sorry!!!!

  3. Sheena says:

    Thank you for this post. As a librarian who was deplorably taught much more about computers and programmes in my university library course than the care of books, I very much appreciated it. May I ask, did you do a course in bookbinding and repair yourself, or did you learn on-the-job at the used bookshop in which you worked? Can you bind paper from scratch?

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      I did learn a great deal about actual book repair and care during my years in the bookshop. And book arts have long been a love of mine! Yes, I have definitely tried my hand at binding. 🙂

  4. Sheena says:

    Just wondered if you knew about this museum – http://www.mmop.org.au/ The Melbourne Museum of Printing? It’s the last remaining typefoundry in Australia and gets an astonishing amount of use. I don’t know whether you have other working typefoundries in America, but it was heartening to me that the art of manual typsetting hasn’t been lost.

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      I haven’t heard of it! What a fascinating place…and, yes, a joy to know that there are places on earth that will always preserve such a true art form.

  5. Annie says:

    That’s really interesting! I miss the days when books were made to be read more than once. It’s so hard to find decent book…even hardcovers are mostly just glued to the spine! They’re just not the same as old ones (not to mention cover art).

  6. Jodi Lenz says:

    Dear Lanier, I’ve been wanting to stop by to say hello, and while I haven’t had the chance to write lately, I just wanted to say that I have been reading and loving all of your posts. Went to the library the other day and found some Rumer Godden books. We also enjoyed your post on bookbinding. That’s an art I’ve always been fascinated by. When my children were little, we made our own paper, then bound it Japanese-style. After that, the kids wrote their own haikus. Ah, homeschooling 🙂 Oh, and William Morris…swoon. I love his designs. Hope to visit your bookshop soon.
    Jodi xo

  7. Robyn says:

    Ha! Saw this post this morning…very appropriate after our conversation about books/technology last night!

  8. Cara says:

    What treasures are books! And what a history they’ve had. I, too, hate how cheaply books are made these days and how quickly they deteriorate.

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