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