What does it take to make a book?

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.

Do books have this luxury? They do not.

Do books have this luxury? They do not.

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.

Saira Haqqi blogpost 1

One gathering – nineteen to go!









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.

As you can see, this is a very neat process.

As you can see, this is a very neat process.


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.

Two books awaiting covering. Only about a four hours of work to go!

Two books awaiting covering. Only about a four hours of work to go!


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.

The closest I shall ever get to practicing medicine.

The closest I shall ever get to practicing medicine.


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.

It helps that sometimes the books look pretty, too.

It helps that sometimes the books look pretty, too.



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.


Show some spine – book titles tell their own stories

If you know anything about us, you should know that DWL runs an annual short story competition (the longlisting for the 2013 competition is well underway, incidentally). But once upon a time, more months ago than we care to admit, we also asked you to submit stories of a different kind: book spine stories. That’s right – you had to go through your books, stack them up and create narratives out of their titles. Here’s a collection of the best responses that we got.

Click on the photos to enlarge them!



Hiba Masood from Dubai sent this heartbreaking yet uplifting story of a mother who learns to love her child for who he is.

Hiba Masood from Dubai sent this heartbreaking yet uplifting story of a mother who learns to love her child for who he is.



Farheen Zehra from Karachi recreates the thrill of breaking the rules.

Farheen Zehra from Karachi on breaking the rules. All the rules.


Sadia Desai on desire and censure.

Karachi: Sadia Desai ‘s retelling of the classic ‘fallen woman’ story.



Sadia Desai recreates a classic scenario here. We've all heard versions of this in our childhood.

What happened next? Sadia Desai  from Karachi leaves you wondering.


Ahmed Ghafoor solves the case.

Ahmed Ghafoor’s fantasy-inspired whodunnit.



'City of Masks' by Najia Sabahat Khan. Originally composed for T2F (www.t2f.biz)

‘City of Masks’ by Najia Sabahat Khan from Karachi. Originally composed for T2F.

DWL Readers’ Club takes off with ‘American Gods’

This is a work of fiction. All the characters in it, human and otherwise, are imaginary, excepting only certain of the fairy folk, whom it might be unwise to offend by casting doubts on their existence. Or lack thereof.

Neil Gaiman (American Gods)  


The life cycle of a book is strange. A book is not born until the writer puts down the final full stop (or finishes off with the ultimate authorial flourish: The End). A book can be ready for the world to see in a few short weeks, or it can spend a lifetime in that incubator known as the writer’s desk. A book’s longevity depends on others: its pages may survive, but for the book itself to truly live on, it needs readers. The magic of the written word fades if there are no wide-eyed believers willing to sacrifice time and effort to read it.

The same holds true for the superhuman beings in Gaiman’s award-winning fantasy novel and the DWL Readers’ Club’s first read, American Gods. The story’s protagonist, ‘Shadow’, is a recently released convict who finds that the life waiting for him outside the prison walls is very different from what he had envisioned. An encounter with a mysterious stranger (named ‘Mr. Wednesday’) leads Shadow on a journey across the United States, which reveals some pretty unsettling truths about him and about the characters he meets along the way. The vulnerable nature of divinity is a central theme in the book. No matter how great their powers, deities can only live as long as there are mortals who believe in them.

It took quite a superhuman effort for us mortals to finish this rather large book (approximately 600 pages) in time (approximately two weeks) for the Readers’ Club’s first meet. The two-hour discussion on a balmy summer evening at the Roadside Café touched upon gods (American or otherwise), Gaiman’s influences, his new book (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), movie adaptations, Tolkien, Dean Koontz and world peace. Emotions were running high when we sat at the table and our voices rose several decibels within a very short time. Afia had the good sense to ask our neighbour, H.M. Naqvi (who seemed to be busy at work on his next novel, or so we would like to think), if the noise level was bothering him. Apparently he was leaving, and so we were free to scream our disgust or delight over the book as we pleased.

The verdict: American Gods had its brilliant moments but overall, it did not live up to the hype. Rahedeen found Gaiman’s ideas to be thought provoking and imaginative, and she enjoyed the witty dialogues, but she did not feel wholly engaged or immersed in the story. She thought that the author added too many elements to follow through on/ to remain consistent and so, in her opinion, the scenes fell flat. Omer felt this could have occurred for practical reasons. He said he could imagine Gaiman getting carried away with the elaborate story universe that he had created but eventually being restricted by editorial pressure or time constraints. He likened the author to J.R.R. Tolkien and Anne Rice, both of whom were known for having created massive worlds with extremely in-depth characters and settings, which could never have been done justice to within the confines of print. And because Gaiman is a natural-born short-story writer, Omer’s theory was that he may further have structured the book as three or four novellas woven together by Shadow’s plot, thus leading to multiple, seemingly standalone sub-plots.

Afia found the book engaging and the narrative well-paced, with a good buildup of tension towards one climactic event. But we all agreed that the pace fizzled out when the climax came around.

Death, redemption, resurrection, sacrifice, guilt, love, loyalty and, of course, faith were themes that featured prominently in the novel. The general concept was that  gods of the traditional faiths were fading away in America because there was a dearth of believers to perform the rituals required to keep them alive. Afia felt that this expanded her view of the god/believer relationship and was quite empowering from the individual believer’s point of view.

IMG_0340As the name indicates, American Gods was overflowing with gods of all shapes and sizes from a variety of cultures and countries. There were Native American gods, Egyptian gods and European gods whose origins were from mythology, folklore or old wives’ tales. A lot of these were unfamiliar to us and as Omer pointed out, he spent some time Googling the various gods and goddesses in the book just to understand the story better. (I did too and ended up jumping from one link to another because the origins of some of the gods made for quite an interesting read.)

The book had a very, to quote Afia, “American feel to it, given that Gaiman is not a US national”. The author seemed quite taken by what he saw during his travels around the US. The focus on the road, the cars, the motels, songs on the radio – all this was quintessentially American. But, ironically, the gods were mostly non-American. And America, as the book says, “was a good place for men, but a bad place for gods”.


The next meeting of the DWL Readers’ Club will be held on Tuesday, 16th July at 6.30 pm at the Roadside Café. For this session, we have agreed to read something by modern American fiction’s late blue-eyed boy, David Foster Wallace. Readers can pick up anything penned by DFW, and when we re-converge on the 16th, we will have a broad discussion on the author and his writing style. For readers who are not located in Karachi, we will be live tweeting the discussion and we encourage you to participate via Twitter.

Neil Gaiman Photograph: Google Images

Photograph 2: Farheen Zehra