At the Bindery

illuminated_m.jpgaterial preservation, now widely understood as a positive social goal, today dominates nearly every discipline of human study. In a sense, one of the oldest and most successful forms of preservation has lovingly embraced the written word. Art as well, but writing and art are millenia-old bedmates.

Remarkably, book binding did not originate in China (though the International Dunhuang Project has done a wonderful job of cataloging Chinese book bindings), where it seems as though everything else originated, including the idea of a printing press as early as 972 a.d. when a copy of the Tripitaka was produced with clay printing blocks. The oldest bound books come from India, where, according to Wikipedia’s Bookbinding page,

religious sutra were copied onto palm leaves (cut into two, lengthwise) with a metal stylus. The leaf was then dried and rubbed with ink, which would form a stain in the wound. The finished leaves were given numbers, and two long twines were threaded through each end through wooden boards. When closed the excess twine would be wrapped around the boards to protect the ‘leaves’ of the book. Buddhist monks took the idea through modern Persia, Afghanistan, and Iran, to China in the the first century BC.

The ability to bind books was stymied initially by the fragility and impermanency of many writing surfaces common before papyrus, rag, flesh, silk and pulp papers were perfected. That, and the Romans had a thing for monumental engravings, while others liked to write on unusual materials such as clay pots or tablets. For a short history of paper-making practices, you can check out this History of Paper from the St. Louis community college web page, or check out this incredible list of papermaking & paper museum links from the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum in Atlanta, GA.

This image shows various forms that book binding can take, clockwise from the upper left: accordion book, sketch pad, Coptic stitch, composition and Japanese stab bound.

The Goods

Of course, this leaves out tortoiseshell binding, chain stitch sewing, saddle stitches, long stitch sewing, wooden board presses, paper case binding, coil binding, in-board cloth binding…etc, etc, etc. Then there are the materials themselves, for the materials used in book binding are nearly limitless, limited only by the patience and ingenuity of the binder. I have seen works bound in bamboo,

Bamboo Book Binding

velvet (I cannot directly reproduce the beautiful image of Petrarch’s work from 1540, but you can see it here),

fur (as seen in Le Corbusier’s custom copy of Don Quixote, noted by Marcus Trimble and reported in the book Le Corbusier: Architect of Books; the beloved dead dog from whom this fur was taken was supposedly named Pinceau, which means “instrument made up of a beam of hairs or fibres, fixed at the end of a handle and being used for painting, sticking, glazing, etc.” If that’s all true, Le Corbusier was truly a sick puppy),


and, as it is called, anthropodermic bibliopegy, or more simply, human skin.

Human skin bound book found in West Yorkshire

I highly recommend that anyone interested in surveying a remarkable visual collection of bookbindings, check out the British Library Database of Bookbindings. Stunning work, overall. The Yale University Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is also quite spectacular. And the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an all-too short review of The Arts of the Book in the Islamic World 1600-1800 that is worth visiting. (If anyone knows of an online resource for Asian and Middle Eastern book arts that is comparable to the British Library one, please let me know)

For practically minded people, there is a wealth of resources for amateur book binders. If you want to study at home, you can try the Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild website which features wonderful galleries as well as how to tutorials that are heavily illustrated. (And for a massive portal to bookbinding links, provided by J. Hewit & Sons Ltd., check out their blissfully contemporary list of professionals that spans most every continent and material expertise.)

A number of my friends from North Carolina swore by the Penland School of Crafts, and judging by the renaissance of bookbinding artists who are pushing the boundaries of custom art book projects in Asheville, they must be onto something. But then Chicago is host to Columbia College Center For Book and Paper Arts, reportedly the “largest book-and-paper-arts teaching facility in the country.” Melissa Jay Craig has had an ongoing show in Columbia’s Library of her altered books; I especially like her piece called Maquette, which is a dictionary reimagined as a brick-faced home.

Maquette, front view

And here’s something I wish I’d made myself, a sliced and diced altered book called Spectacle — Jacques Prévert by Georgia Russell from 2006:


check out a gallery of her work for sale here

But there’s certainly something to be said for vanity bindings, often one-of-a-kind works with mass produced pages that were in vogue after scriptoria were rendered anachronistic by printing presses, and high society required new ways to flaunt their literacy and wealth.

Jean Calvin 1545, Brieve instruction, pour armer tous bons fideles contre les erreurs de la secte commune des anabaptistes.

Check out this gallery of Six Centuries of Master Bookbinding for an incredible visual treat. It features one of the only images I’ve ever seen of an early Mexican book binding, this one from a calf-skin Bible, the Biblia cu[m] concorda[n]tijs veteris et noui testamenti [et] sacrorum canonu[m], which was printed in Venice, 1511.

You may recall the Sangorski and Sutcliffe jeweled binding of Milton’s Paradise Lost that I was lucky enough to personally read from while visiting Chicago’s Newberry Library collection. Well, here is another stunning example of their work, a copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott. If you are able to see any of their work first-hand, please, do not pass up the opportunity. Like Peter Legrain and Rose Adler, there are just some artisans who can infuse books with the breath of life.

Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). The Lady of Shalott. by Sangorski

How wonderful is it that, with a short search of the web, I can see with my electronic eye a slide show of a weary book rebound by atelier Herb Weitz. A somewhat limited online history of bookbinding that nonetheless covers Italian, French and English bindings fairly well is this essay by Herbert P. Horne from 1894. Other wonderful French bindings, particularly those of Grolier, can be found here.

Lest you think every country in the world but America perfected the art of book binding, check out this example from Decorah, Iowa in 1890, a copy of Ørkenblomster: en samling digte og salmer by Knud Throndsen:

Ørkenblomster: en samling digte og salmer, Knud Throndsen

This image comes from a lovely page detailing
Norwegian American imprints from the Rolvaag Memorial Library.

Modern books certainly have the advantage of democracy, permitting the widest possible audience with the luxury of reading, but the craft is often leavened with soulless mechanization. Here is a schematic of the construction of modern cloth case bindings:


The science of bindings today is fairly dichotomous in intent, being either fully about resiliency and preservation or about large-scale mass production. As more and more projects embrace digitization, this equation is being re-written.


As Jeff Gomez points out in Print is Dead: From Book Forum to Art Forum, the written word in print form is likely to revert to a status as an art object. This is something I’ve witnessed first-hand, as more and more book publishers try to capitalize on increasingly expensive vanity bindings in a search for longevity. The number of unusually sized and bound works is on the rise, and whole presses, such as Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Press, live in this post-modern nostalgic netherworld.

Mass market books flourished as a popular media for a time, and will continue to do so in decreasing numbers, but when considering the history of the written word, it is little more than evidence of a product of a transient cycle than of a lasting phenomena. This isn’t to say that books will perish by any means, just that content is often corralled into form within a state of flux. Radio continues to exist, and to co-exist with numerous identical counterparts that only differ in medium of delivery. A cookbook from the 1600s would be nearly unrecognizable in the same way Ye Olde English is is not modern English.

The number of collections of artist books is growing day by day, and a quick search of the web reveals some unreasonably tempting road trip destinations. Luckily, there are valuable portals online for armchair book-lovers. The Otis College of Art and Design Collections Online has a remarkable sampler of artists’ books, digitized and ready for browsing.

I should close by mentioning BiblioOdyssey, a wonderful blog dedicated to “Books~~Illustrations~~Science~~History~~Visual Materia Obscura~~Eclectic Bookart.” It’s obscene, just how pleasurable the right book in the right hands can be, in form, content and spiritual manifestation, an incomparable paradise.

Aleksandr Rodchenko. (Russian, 1891-1956). Dobrolet. 1923


11 Responses to At the Bindery

  1. […] while now, but his recent post on bookbinding was so interesting I felt the need to share. Go read At the bindery and marvel at Don Quixote bound in fur! Bookmark […]

  2. denis says:

    A very interesting mix, thanks

  3. Wow! Amazing collection of books on this blog, thanks. Great photos too. That fur book is certainly… urr… unique. Thanks very much for the info on where to go to pursue an interest in bookbinding and artists books. All very helpful.

  4. Kristen says:

    Very cool article. I wanted to comment on the resiliency and preservation vs. mass production……we are a book binder in Waltham, MA that does resiliency and preservation….we hand sew our books and do restoration by hand. check out our website……….

  5. Binder says:

    A truely amazing collection of books. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Pino says:

    Amazing blog, amazing set of great looking books…but you should see this artist too, she’s amazing and I was left stunned by her works:

  7. Hi !
    beautiful Blog, A very interesting material..
    especially the part of book binding bamboo

  8. AsianFood says:

    Really interesting blog!! It makes me think of a few bookbinding courses I wanted to do ages ago…

  9. How to transfer my blog from blogspot to paid hosting?.

  10. Im a computer engineering student but i am planning to shift to other programs if computer engineering will not have a licensure/board exam.. i want to be a registered computer engineer!.

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