Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Book That Binds

I recently came across a 53-year-old book about the old art of book binding, Hand Bookbinding: A Manual of Instruction by Aldren A. Watson (Bell Publishing Company, Inc. (1963). Even though I personally have no interest in binding a book, I found it interesting that this practice was being passed on in a book. Though the book was mainly filled with hundreds of specific steps and illustrations on just how one would go about binding a book, something there is probably very little need for today, there were some good passages about books contained in this manual. Here are some of them:

Early Binding
“Paradoxically, the history of bookbinding begins many centuries after the appearance of the first book.  One of the earliest known “books” is a papyrus roll, dating from the twenty-fifth century, B.C. and containing 18 columns of Egyptian hieratic writing [fig 1]. The roll form continued throughout two thousand years of pre-Christian history. Even after the birth of Christ, although parchment replaced papyrus, the roll volume (from volvere – to roll) remained the standard form.  But the arrangement of the writing in parallel columns separated by vertical lines held the potentiality for the development of a new form.  Eventually, the idea of cutting the roll into separate panels, each holding three or four columns, gave birth to the book as we know it.  The first bound book, then was made up of single sheets, hinged along one edge by means of sewing or lacing.  In the Latin codex, or manuscript book, the columnar arrangement of writing was continued; typical examples from Roman times have three or four columns to the page.  Down to the present day, two- and three-column pages have proven practical and easy to read.  Since modern trade books are predominantly single column, their page are smaller, in contrast to the much larger books of earlier times.”

Paper Making
“Paper making was introduced to Europe from China in the tenth century.  Sheets of this new handmade material approximated parchment in weight, although they could be folded, punched and sewn with far greater flexibility.  Good strong thread was used in the sewing, and silk was employed in making headbands.  Leather was attached to the wooden cover boards in its full thickness; shaving it thin, or paring as it is called, was unknown.  If the temptation is to consider these bindings clumsy, they rather deserve the more proper term “rugged.”  For these binders worked in the tradition of their times; their durable bindings resulted simply from doing their work the only way they knew – well.”

15th Century Revolution
“The revolution in book binding started, however, in the middle of the fifteenth century with the invention of printing from movable type.  A manuscript book, copied by hand, was the product of a slow process producing a single volume.  With Gutenberg’s process of composing words from individual type letters, an entire page could be set up and printed in a vastly accelerated manner.  Relatively speaking, bookbinding changed from an individual craft to one of mass production.  This did not immediately bring in about a reduction in the size of books, for the early type faced were copied from the old, large calligraphic letters.  The growing public demand for books provided the catalyst for a dramatic increase both in the quantity of books and the need for bookbinders.”

According to the book’s jacket, “Hand Bookbinding contains thorough, step-by-step instruction in the sound, traditional methods of fine hand binding, with emphasis on careful workmanship and durability.  Written in clear language, and profusely illustrated with explicit drawings and diagrams, the book demonstrates how to carry through a series of binding projects, from a simple folded booklet to a multi-signature book sewn on tapes.

“Directions are given for the fundamental steps of folding, marking up and sewing, making and attaching boards, and designing title labels. Similar instructions are given for advanced procedures including the rebinding of an old book, making of split boards, head banding, making a slipcase, and the making of a box for a set of books.

“Hand Bookbinding is for the beginning binder, who will find its organization and illustrations easy to follow.  The book is also a useful adjunct to the training of book designers, editors, book illustrators, and those interested in book manufacturing and publishing. It will also be a useful handbook for the amateur hobbyist, the craft teacher, and the camp instructor.”

As for who would be qualified to write such a book? The jacket copy states this about him: “Aldren A. Watson is an artist and craftsman with many talents.  A practicing hand-binder, he is well-known as well as the illustrator of more than two hundred books, and as the author-illustrator of My Garden Grows, A Maple Tree Begins, The Village Blacksmith, and Country Furniture. Mr. Watson has conducted classes and private instruction in hand binding, and has made illustrations for other technical books on the subject. His work is represented in private and public collections, and in numerous periodicals and anthologies.”

To learn more about bookbinding, you may want to consult:

Bookbinders Academy


Society of Bookbinders


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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2016

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