The Sensual Art of Bookbinding

In my day job, I sit at a desk and work on a computer all day, documenting all kinds of things, many of them theoretical (I recently spent over a week on a flowchart of how a very complex system of servers works). I write movie reviews on the side, too — which involves sitting in the dark and using my vision and hearing to take in a movie, then sitting at a desk and writing about it. I also do computer gaming (mostly on my XBox), blogging, and generally spend a lot of my time staring at either a computer screen or a tv screen.

Sure, I have hobbies that involve other senses — gardening, knitting — and I adore them, but they take up a tiny part of my week comparatively speaking. Also, for me, they’re not really crafts in the craftsmanship sense. I enjoy them and do them well, but I don’t have specialized training in them.

Now that I’m setting chunks of time aside to work on books, it’s like my senses are suddenly coming out of hibernation. I was recently working on sewing  a book, using a cast iron paperweight I bought in Portland at the Japanese Garden, and I was struck by all the sensory input I was being swamped with. Stitching the signatures of a book together doesn’t take a lot of abstract, intellectual thought, just care and some attention. It’s very zen.

Just sitting there, I could:

  • Smell the beeswax I’d used on the linen thread
  • See the light of my desk lamp on the pages, the growing pattern of the stitches, and the lovely paperweight (I’m trying to come up with a good name for him)
  • Feel the paper under my left hand as I held it and the vibration of the thread against the paper via the needle in my right hand
  • Hear the whisper of the thread against the paper and the reassuring thunk of the weight whenever I moved it

All I needed was something to taste and every sense would be involved! I’m considering having a special drink or snack at my side just when I’m working on books, if only to get that last sense in there.

It was wonderful!

The sensory input of bookbinding permeates the craft. The feel of the paper, the sound it makes when I fold it, the click of the bone folder sliding off its edge, the smell of the paste, the whisper when I cut it. It’s the sound, feel, and scent of bookbinding I notice the most, which makes sense given that so much of my time is spent looking at things. Visual art is nothing new — I read blogs with gorgeous design, watch videos, look at cat macros — but doing something so rich in the other senses is astonishing.

It’s a delight.

Someone Who Gets It

Last week, a friend came over to my place for lunch. She hadn’t been over before, and in fact, I don’t think visited my last apartment, either. It was a bit of a surprise to her, I think, to see my shelves and shelves of books. They surrounded us as we sat on my couch and chatted, so naturally we wound up talking about them.

She bemoaned the fact that most of her books are currently in storage, and said she’d been thinking about getting an ereader of some sort, but that seeing my collection made her remember the things she liked about physical books. The sensory input of turning a page, of seeing the cover every time you pick it up, of having the books on display as a design element in the room, the smell of an old book, that sort of thing.

It made me smile. This is the sort of person I roadie for. She gets it.

People who hear about my books and say, “so when are you getting a Kindle?” don’t get it. People who say “ooooh, now’s a perfect time to cull your books!” when you mention you’re moving don’t get it. Folks who have never walked into a used bookstore and closed their eyes and breathed deep with a blissful smile don’t get it.

They are not my Right People, to use one of Havi’s words.

And that’s okay! Not everyone has to be a bibliophile.

But for those folks who get it, I am here to say, Awesome, dude. I get it too. Let’s do this.