The Joys of Bookbinding
by Richard Blake
(published in The Seoul Times, 14th April 2015)
What do you do with a book when it falls apart? Throwing it away, I hope everyone will agree, is not an option. Killing a book—even in this age of mass publication—is, as Milton said, rather like killing a man. So the choice lies between doing nothing and patching it up. The first may be unsatisfactory: you try reading a book on the Underground when the pages keep dropping out. The second can be little better. Staples, Sellotape, Copydex glue—these do the job after a fashion, but that is not very well. Then I discovered bookbinding.
It was in August 2000, and I was called in by an adult education institute on the edge of London. It had lost its Economics teacher and needed another at short notice. Would I step in? When I was poorer, I used to do a lot of evening work. It can be fun. On the other hand, it makes a long teaching day even longer. The money is never exciting, and this was no exception. But to sweeten the deal, I was told I could join any other evening course as a student and have it for free. Looking through the prospectus, I noticed all the usual things—basket weaving, Gujerati for beginners, seminars on the Irish Question as reflected in the works of Charles Dickens, and so on and so on. And I saw bookbinding. The words jumped off the page at me. I was promised a “course on the repair and maintenance of books, suitable for beginners and for the advanced”. The Economics students had their teacher, and I had started a new chapter in my life.
A small man, with a look of the 1940s about his manner and the configuration of his face, my teacher, Alan, had retired twice already. His main career had been producing accounts books for companies in the City. Then he had taught for a couple of years somewhere else. Now he was here, teaching on Tuesday evenings and giving Wednesday afternoons to the overspill. His classroom took up half of one of those prefabricated buildings used for teaching children before the birthrate fell, and was filled with cast iron presses and cutting machines. There was a smell of various glues, of leather, and of all the other necessaries for his craft. He had no clock in the room, but there was a keep fit class for the elderly next door, and the teacher would play the same exercise music in the same order every week. After week three, I doubt if I needed my watch.
I was about the youngest in the class. The other students were mostly retired. The custom was for us all to get on with our own projects, while Alan made a slow circuit, handing out praise and advice as required. Sometimes, he would give a lecture for those interested in hearing—about changes in the manufacture of paper since the 1830s, about how the change from English measurements to the metric system had often led to book production with pages bound against the grain of the paper, and so forth. Sometimes, he would talk about the slow decline of his health or his time in national service, spent in the Canal Zone in Egypt. Sometimes, he would offer short general advice. “You should never not buy a book”, he once told me—advice that fell on willing ears, even if my dear wife might have had a reply about the lack of carpentry in my bookshelves. The students themselves would share advice or help, or the usual horrified views on England under the heel of New Labour.
Aside from this, though, we worked in silence. We all had our projects. There was John, a conveyancing solicitor, who seemed to spend the whole evening scraping the insides of leather sheets, to make them thin enough for binding. There was Paul, who was one of the world’s leading experts on some species of cuttlefish, and who had been rebinding old books on natural history for about 30 years. There was Barry, who was restoring a pile of books from the 18th century—taking them to pieces and even washing the sheets in a special chemical before putting them back together. There was David, whose project was to rebind the collected works of Agatha Christie in yellow plastic. It sounds a ghastly project. Even so, she was a good novelist, and there was something impressive in the accumulation and uniformity of his achievement.
And there was me. As an absolute beginner, my project was to take an old paperback—the sort made up of cut sheets glued together at the spine, and that disintegrates as you read it—and rebind it in hard covers. During the first month of the course, Alan took me through the basics. First, you get off the old cover and the glue from the spine. You can do this with an industrial guillotine, though taking off more than a 32nd of an inch from the pages makes for a tight read; much better, I soon found, to clamp the book and plane off the glue. Then, the book still clamped, you paint on a thick layer of PVA glue. A wonderful substance this—good for everything from sticking paper to damp-proofing basement walls: whoever invented it deserves a Nobel Prize, or at least to be filthy rich. Then, with a hacksaw, you cut three grooves into the spine, an eighth of an inch deep, and glue in lengths of Irish hemp with a one inch overlap each side. Then you stick on the endpapers, and trim the three outer edges of the book to make them clean and even.
Now comes the really hard part. You need to cut two pieces of book board so they evenly overlap the outer edges by an eighth of an inch and no more. Once cut, you cover these with just the right area of book cloth, leaving just the right width in the middle for the spine. Gluing this to the endpapers and the splayed Irish hemp is the last step, before screwing all into a book press. 90 seconds later, you have your fresh, smooth rebound book, still damp and smelling of the PVA, but revived and in good order for the next hundred years.
Such is the theory. In fact, my first effort—and more than the one after that—was a disappointment. The spine was a quarter inch thicker at the top than at the bottom, and the boards overhung the book with an irregularity that would have inspired an impressionist German film maker of the 1920s. Worse, it refused to open without danger of splitting the endpapers.
But practice makes perfect—or, in my case, it makes tolerable. By Christmas, Alan’s face was looking decidedly less cloudy as he inspected my latest efforts, and he was guiding me into the deeper waters of rebinding real books with cow gum and the Oxford hollow.
What did I get out of all this? Well, in the first place, I was now able to walk into a second hand bookshop like a king. No matter how tatty or fragmented it might be, I could buy anything I wanted. I picked up 20 numbers last year of The Edinburgh Review from the 1870s and 80s—reviews in them of The Descent of Man and other late Victorian classics. With all the boards dropped off and most of the spines split, I got them for £20 the lot. Such happy hours—such harmless hours—I spent rebinding them in blue. I am presently at work on an edition of Tacitus that I printed from the Internet, and on a copy of Voltaire’s La Pucelle printed in an dix de la République—now there is metrication for you!
What I also got was a greater respect for craftsmanship. However hard we try, intellectuals have a bias to snobbery about manual work. Though useful, these things are dismissed as lower pursuits, with no shame involved in not knowing them. But there is an artistry in producing a well-bound book, not that different from writing one – more, indeed, considering some of the books that get published.
And bookbinding is not merely an honourable but also an old and very conservative craft. A modern case binding is not that different in the technical sense from those of the ancient world. The typical ancient book, of course, was a papyrus roll, about 20 feet long. Just as the playing time of a 78rpm gramophone record standardised the length of popular songs, so the limitations of the papyrus roll – something decided long before in Egypt—fixed the length or divisions of most classical literature. Bound books, or codices, are known from about the time of Christ. Both Horace and Quintillian mention them as notebooks. Martial mentions them as the format for cheap editions. But the pagans tended to stay with the papyrus roll. It seems to have been the Christians who first made regular use of the codex for their literature. Perhaps it was their respect for the written word of God that attracted them to a format so well adapted to ease of referencing.
Whatever the case, the pattern was set very early—quires of four or five sheets folded vertically, stitched in the middle and bound in as many sections as needed or convenient. So far as binding is concerned, the introduction of printing in the 15th century made no change; nor the earlier moves from papyrus to parchment and from parchment to paper. The biggest change before the perfect bound paperbacks of the last century was the introduction of separate machine-made cloth bindings in the 19th century. But on the evenings when John was scraping his leathers to the required thinness, I do not think the binders of the Codex Sinaiaticus from the second century would have found much in my class that was alien to them.
You might suppose, all things considered, that Alan and his dedicated and even adoring students would have been regarded as the glory of that adult education institute, and the main justification of its existence at the taxpayers’ expense. Not so. In the two years I spent in his class, he was under constant threat of closure. The health and safety people were forever sniffing round his machines —though to have seen me using one would have given the most indulgent official a fit of the vapours. Then there were the continual warnings from above about the coffee and tea we made for ourselves half way through every lesson. But I think the genuine reason for hostility was that Alan’s course did not lead to the getting of paper qualifications that could go on returns to the relevant bureaucracy. Nor did it involve the use of computers; and I know from running my own Economics course there that “education around information technology” was part of the mission statement. I did find an American supplier who offered book cloth that would go through a laser printer, and even the oldest students bought their supplies via the Internet. But these partial adaptations —the sort of thing all true conservatives welcome—did nothing to change the view of bookbinding as a craft out of place in the “high-tech”, “learning outcome-based” world of adult education in the 21st century.
About a year ago, Alan retired for the third time and went to live in Wales, and I moved out of London. I like to think that he will be persuaded once more out of retirement. But I do know that if I ever have the same inspiring effect on any of my students as he had on me, teaching will not have been a worthless choice of career.
© 2015 – 2017, richardblake.
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