Friday, December 12, 2014
The Territory of Handmade Books by Lisa Van Pelt
In the world of books there are many territories. The biggest and most well-known of these is the marketplace of mass produced books, manufactured on high speed machines, whether delivered via paper or pixel. This process has arguably solved the problem of getting the written word into the hands of modern-day readers.
Less well-known is the territory of hand bound books and letterpress printing. It’s a centuries-old region with rich histories and traditions and it is still very much alive today.
This is the territory where I spend my days. I am an edition bookbinder, hand binding fine press books mostly in the French tradition of the livre d’artist – finely crafted, small editions featuring original art.
Time is slower and longer here. A single book in an edition might take five hours to bind. The cast iron equipment I use was manufactured in the late 1800’s and are still the preferred tools of the trade.
The territory is populated by skilled craftspeople around the globe, often clustered in hotbed areas. I learned my craft in one such place, in a modern day apprenticeship. This was in Western Massachusetts, where an established array of printers, type casters, paper makers, engravers, printmakers, bookbinders, decorative artists and publishers, along with restorationists and conservationists have applied themselves to the art of book making and passing on the craft.
As part of my training I learned the technique of making paste paper, which has been used in books for over 400 years as endsheets and cover material. This technique of painting pigments and starch on paper, then imprinting with designs lends itself to more than just books. All of this handmade effort often leads to books that are not within the reach of the average reader. Indeed most of these books are purchased by specialized collectors and institutions, making them similar to the inaccessible books of 500 years ago. However, these rarified books lie at only one end of the spectrum of modern-day letterpress and hand bound books.
At a more accessible part of that spectrum the techniques are used by individual artists and writers to express ideas and convey information in a fully tactile and sequential way. They immerse the viewer/reader in a total book experience in everything from the feel of a book’s enclosure to the placement of the typography.
Even while reading in the digital age is increasingly becoming distanced from the physical page, this resurgent culture of makers continually renews the long-standing art of handmade books.
The next time you sit down to write consider how some of your finely crafted words might be expressed in a book form of your making. Imagine how a pause in the narrative could be physically represented by an unfolding of a page. How a tone could be reinforced by the texture and variety of materials. Handmade books offer quite a different territory of possibilities. One well worth visiting.