Friday, April 18, 2008

Books and Binding

If you grew up loving books, you might – like me – have dreamed of becoming a writer one day.

On the other hand, you might have grown up loving books and never once entertained the notion of binding a book on your own.

My favorite teachers in school read aloud to me, and I watched them opening the covers of books and turning the pages, sometimes holding them open to show an artist's illustrations as I listened to the text being read aloud. My eyes enjoyed the familiar shape of the pages fanning out, rippling in waves until the teacher's fingers flattened the pages and steadied them.

I understood that not all books lay flat, that new books especially had pages that wanted to balloon, to bounce, to dive back and rest safely inside the covers again. I understood that this tendency had something to do with the spine of the book (I didn’t know it was called a spine), some mechanism tightly knit and ordinarily hidden under the extended fabric of the cover.

I early learned to envy the skill of the writers of books. On the other hand, I acknowledged the power wielded by books’ illustrators without ever hoping to wield it myself, and I had no idea who the shadowy individuals might be who knew how to keep pages together inside a book's covers.

I had exceptional luck with writing. I discovered that emulating successful artisans of words was helpful in my doing well in school. With deft circumlocution I managed to explore things in my personal journal that could pass the censure of nosy family members. In my first years in seminary, I even wrote weekly letters to my parents that succeeded in sounding as though we had regularly and warmly communicated everything that was important to us in the years before my entering.

Sad to say, those letters were largely works of fiction. I confessed as much to my friend Michael when we visited last month in New Orleans. An English teacher, Michael is used to commenting on someone’s writing, and the letter he sent me the week after my trip was a gift of characteristic insight and generosity:

One thought that has occurred to me is how your own exquisite writing skills themselves, ironically, belie a deeper turmoil. Your carefully measured prose, your perceptive and nuanced reflections hint at a well-ordered inner house. But these, I think you would now tell me, are (have been) the scaffolding holding up some disrepair. Writing has been one tool, among others I am sure, of survival. I am glad you have that tool. I hope you find many others.

A consoling and emboldening thought: the many other tools of survival that may be available to this inveterate wordsman. So here…

What I have recently begun to explore is the craft of bookbinding. In my fifties I have uncovered in myself a fascination with the ways books hold physically what those of us who craft sentences and paragraphs dream of preserving in them. Borrow an image from my friend Michael, and you might say that I am setting my hand to creating the physical scaffolding for the writing and reading that have been lifelines for me.

On a Saturday morning two weeks ago, I stood at a bookbinder’s workbench in a local crafts school and began. It was important to feel myself in a new environment and at a new task. It was reassuring to look around me and see nothing familiar and be able to listen to what my hands and eyes wanted to say with the materials before me.

I am proud of what I have managed.

Photo uploaded from CJ's Woodland Shed


Ur-spo said...

i share with you the love and passion for writing and books.
Blogging allows me to fufill the need to write.
I have a friend who makes his own paper and books; it is a fascinating craft to observe.

MperiodPress said...


Just last night I was at a bookstore and found a copy of a paperback recently recommended by a friend. In a habit formed as a young child, I looked at the binding of every copy before deciding which one would come home with me. Another customer saw me and asked "Excuse me, but are you actually going to read all of those?" He was joking....the book is about 600 pages. All I could summon to say, politely, was "Bindings matter to me."

I so relied on the worlds created by authors...worlds that were describable, constant, present, instantly available to a kid with a keen sense of imagination and a desire to be elsewhere.

A good binding meant it would last and I was welcome to return

Good bindings, to this day, mean things will last. That's what healthy relationships are, afterall--no?

I am happy for your taking up this new aspect of literary art. Sew on, wordsman and friend.

Jim said...

Donald, I only just realized that the root meaning of the word"intimacy" is "moving into that which is fearsome". I am grateful that you share with us your own struggle beyond survival and into real intimacy, whatever the cost. I agree with your friend, Michael. Sometimes I find that my own words are a way to smokescreen that which is in disrepair and which I don't want others to see. I can use words to prove my insightfulness,as if that is enough. But, as my own years of therapy keep telling me, it's all about action--new choices and heading into the sometimes unknown. Your journey is a brave and encouraging one. Please know that.

Donald said...

After a weekend of travel, it is heartening to return to the comments of readers who want to burrow further into the mystery of our words and the books that contain them.

Yes, let us all move into that which is fearsome and prove ourselves worthy of the hearts that have been given us.