Guest post by Saira Haqqi
I have a confession to make.
I judge books by their covers.
To be more exact, I judge them based on how they are made.
This probably seems inexplicable. Whereas books were originally luxury items, created for the enjoyment of a wealthy few, they are now so common that we hardly give their binding a second thought. After all, they’re just churned out by machines, aren’t they? Isn’t their content more important, at the end of the day?
And yet, we are all aware of books that have been profoundly unsatisfying to read. That obese textbook that lurched out of its covers within a few weeks, that ornate tome that refused to open far enough to allow one to actually read it, or that paperback that disintegrated into a pile of loose papers before it had been read once – we’re all familiar with books that just didn’t succeed as books.
I’ve had occasion to think about all of these things this year, since I am spending my summer binding books the old-fashioned way – by hand.
The best – and worst – thing about bookbinding is that it feeds into relentless perfectionism. A friend and mentor once warned me that when making a book, you have to get everything just right from the beginning or the book will be a complete flop. Her words were, unfortunately, quite true, and become positively intimidating when you think of all the steps involved in making a book.
Since I’m making blank books, I (thankfully) don’t have to worry about printing anything. I start by cutting and folding large sheets of paper into what are called ‘gatherings’ – a group of pages folded together. These are pressed in a contraption called a “book press” for several hours, if not overnight, to squish them as flat as possible. Then the gatherings are cut – one by one – more exactly to size using a “board shear” – a lovely little machine that could easily slice off a finger, if not an entire hand. For the books I’m making these days (twenty gatherings, eight pages per gathering) this takes about an hour and a half per book.
Then, each of the gatherings is marked with a series of holes through the center fold, which are then used to sew the book together, a gathering at a time.
Then the pages can be trimmed again; the edges decorated with paint or gold; the spine left flat or rounded (a process that involves a hammer and muscles you did not know you had); covering material prepared (and therein lies a tale); hard-cover boards cut; innumerable things measured, re-measured, mis-measured, and re-measured again; and the whole thing put together, usually with an air of washing one’s hands entirely of the wretched thing.
To say that the affair is an exercise in frustration is putting it mildly. It’s physically exhausting – I’ve spent almost every day these past few weeks standing and applying some kind of pressure with my hands and arms. The whole thing involves innumerable pointy, dangerous tools that result in all kinds of fun scars to show one’s friends, and results in a wonderfully expanded vocabulary of a type that unfortunately cannot be printed in these august pages due to the fear of ruining the innocence of young eyes.
And yet! There is a certain joy to creating something all by oneself that can be explained by any five-year-old who has had a drawing stuck up on the fridge. And there is a sense of accomplishment to mastering skills that, no matter how easy they may sound, take years of practice to accomplish successfully. Simply cutting paper can be difficult when you have to cut it to an exact dimension – not a millimeter more, not a millimeter less.
So the next time you go into a bookshop – or simply glance across your bookshelf – take a moment to think about the way in which the books have been made. Think about the miracle that brought them to you in this format – that history of people who, like me, poured their body and muscles into creating this object to further the spread of knowledge. And marvel that we ever got this far.
Saira is currently enrolled in the New York University graduate program in art conservation, where she is specializing in the conservation of library materials. You can follow her personal blog at sairarias.wordpress.com.