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Literary Arts

The Handmade Tale

Book-binding as a means of connecting. By Clara Chow


Published: 23 Jul 2021

Time taken : ~10mins

Chapter 1: The Cutting Mat

– in which a foundation is laid; and rubber workbench surfaces heal themselves like bodies and souls.

The alarm goes off at 4 in the morning. I roll out of bed, picking sleep’s crust from my eyes. Fumble to wake my iPad and join a Zoom session.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, halfway across the world, poet-artist-teacher MC Hyland appears in the Zoom grid and talks us through a series of manoeuvres involving a single sheet of paper. Hamburger fold. Hotdog fold. We are from all over the world—all grappling with this beginner bookbinder origami; all grappling with a pandemic that has closed borders but made this diverse remote class a possibility.

We are participants in the Creative Publishing Seminar, a by-application tuition-free programme run by the Center for Book Arts in New York. Over six weeks, from Jan to Feb 2021, our cohort of about 30 meet online bi-weekly for three hours to learn about digital typesetting and design, book structures and binding techniques from Hyland, as well as guest speakers who are book artists and small press publishers.

In the pre-dawn hours, I fold and cut paper into desired sizes to make book blocks. There is something meticulous and geeky—and oh-so-therapeutic—about making sure the corners line up perfectly before committing to a fold, pressing the paper down along its grain on my green cutting mat. Professional bookbinders have cool knives that slit folio pages open cleanly. I have a fancy sword-shaped letter-opener that does a bad job, and a $3 pen-knife that does a slightly better one. My $2 paper-cutter from Daiso with a sliding blade is a life-saver.

In a bit, I will need to make the kids’ breakfasts and wave them off to school. But right now, right here, the only task, the only decisions to be made are: How does one sew these loose leaves together? What kind of stitch to use? How thick to make it? What new, tangible object do I want to eventually hold in my hands?

I perform small, repetitive actions. They comfort me. The airports are closed, travel strictly curtailed. Alone in my room, I struggle with the intricacies of meander books, accordion books, eight-page pamphlets, Japanese stab binding and Turkish map folds—not lonely because there are strangers-turned-friends’ voices issuing from tinny iPad speakers, asking questions, offering support. We are a community, bound together by a common interest: hand-making books as bulwark against the virtual and uncertain

Chapter 2: The Awl

– in which a pandemic fuels the resurgence of handmade books.

The pandemic has—among all the different ways in which it has changed our lives—given rise to renewed interest in book-binding and book arts among hobbyists and writers worldwide.

Fan-fiction enthusiasts have taken to commissioning gorgeous hand-bound collections of their favourite works, reported TheVerge.com in May 2021. Such commissions have increased as bookbinders showcase their craft on TikTok and set up Etsy shops. Meanwhile, fine press editions of classic titles are finding new audiences: most recently, New York’s Thornwillow Press successfully crowd-funded a letterpress, hand-bound fine edition of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon—407 backers pledged $162,210 to bring the project to life.

Book-binding has even become a means of activism. Artists are teaching book-binding to communities as a way of dealing with trauma, such as Suzi Banks Baum, who travels from the United States to Armenia to teach the art and share her creative practice with women conditioned by society not to express themselves.

The Center for Book Arts (CBA), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the book as art object, has seen an uptick in attendance students from all over the world since they moved all their programming and workshops online a year ago. Previously, their in-person workshops—ranging from basic book-binding, typography to paper marbling and more—had enrolment of up to 12. These days, online classes see attendance of up to 35, from across the US as well as the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The Creative Publishing Seminar has a cohort of 20 to 30 students.

“The more technologically advanced our society becomes, the more people retreat to print and tangible materials,” says Jenna Hamed, artist-curator and programmes manager at the centre. “I have seen an influx of people wanting to take classes to detach from the automation and computerisation of our world, and fixate on handmade projects.”

Similarly, Singapore-based Bynd Artisan, a retailer of personalised leather and paper gifts which also conducts craft workshops, says that it has received an uptake in interest for its book-binding workshops in recent months.

“Having the opportunity to hand-bind your own book is something very special and meaningful,” says Bynd Artisan’s founder-CEO Winnie Chan. The younger generation today, she adds, are starting to appreciate the beauty of craftsmanship and opening up to learning traditional techniques. The company’s master craftsmen have helped art and design students to learn how to bind their own portfolios or final-year projects.

With reduced social interaction these days, more people are also turning to book arts to cope with enforced solitude and stress. “Making books by hand can come in as a form of relaxation and self-discovery,” says Chan. “Taking time away from our digital devices and immersing ourselves in handcrafting, putting together individual parts of a book, can help divert our attention from negative thoughts or feelings.”

Artist Shihui Yang founded Based Book Arts in 2019, after spending a couple of years in the creative and printing industries. Holding a Bachelor’s Degree in Book Arts and Design from the London College of Communication, she teaches workshops in various binding methods.

“There is definitely an interest,” she says of book-binding enthusiasts and students in Singapore. Hand-binding is a therapeutic process, an opportunity to spend time with yourself and become immersed in producing something of your own. “I really like the process and working with paper. You have to think ahead and plan when you’re working with an art book. Each mistake you make carries on to the next step, so you learn to rectify your mistakes and solve problems.”

Among her most interesting projects is repairing a disintegrating book of Buddhist chants for a 92-year-old man—a job commissioned by his grandson. “It may be an ordinary book for most people but what I find interesting is the attachment the grandpa has to the book.”

But the resurgence in book arts is a trend helped by something larger than the current crisis and mood. As with all things slightly hipster-ish, hand-made books are a reaction to the instant gratification of the digital age and disposable culture.

New York-based artist Elizabeth Castaldo, who teaches print-making and book arts at Parsons School of Design, Nassau Community College and the Center for Book Arts, says: “I hear from many of my students that they want to return to making things with their hands. I think this also has something to do with an interest in working across disciplines, as well as the trend of taking a more expanded point of view on what a book is and what it can be.”

“It doesn't need to feel like such a rigid or constrained format to work within and the possibilities are endless,” she adds. “I think this is attractive to artists and creative people who see the new possibilities the book offers for expression.”

Chapter 3: The Bone Folder

– in which the book moves from mass-produced to personal.

For the longest time, I’d thought about the relationship between author and reader in the digital age: how could we strive towards something more intimate, a meaningful pact, in a world where billions of lines are tossed off daily in social media?

I’d written a book of love poems in Chinese that I wanted to publish. Hand making a chapbook seemed to me a way to get it done while exploring the idea of intimacy, romance and how fleeting infatuation can be. With that in mind, I applied for the creative publishing seminar and brainstormed ideas with my group mates. The idea was to work with botanical inks in order to print an edition of the poems that would gradually fade with time.

The custom ink idea got shelved after I discovered that I was allergic to certain ingredients. Letterpress printing was deemed unfeasible after speaking to a typesetter; finding a set of Chinese lead type in Singapore complete enough to typeset my manuscript was going to be a big problem. I took a custom box-making class in order to prototype a multi-book object for a bilingual edition, now with the English title of Lousy Love Poems, but my boxes turned out so weird and imprecise that I despaired.

In the end, I printed pages on my laser printer and bound them into double pamphlets, with an essay on a single-sheet of paper serving as front and back covers and spine. The entire booklet formed a ‘Z’ when opened. This eventually evolved into a limited-edition dos-a-dos book, meaning that the Chinese edition and English translation were separate books bound together but facing opposite directions. Each was hand-numbered, as well as came with a thermal-printed ‘receipt’ that would fade after 10 years.

While not particularly sophisticated or luxe, my hand-made book was an extremely personal journey. The learning process was interesting, satisfying and by no means over—I see myself revisiting and reinventing the binding of this poetry collection in future. There is a slice of personal history in the entire enterprise, whether the reader is aware of it or not: the first book-binding workshop I took with my elder son, J, then in primary school and needing supervision with the tools, and the eight-page notebooks we proudly carried home; the paper-making workshop my younger son, L, and I attended while on holiday in Taipei, after which we carefully carried our rolled-up mulberry paper speckled with pulp pieces home on the plane.

I’m not the only one who believes in this "farm-to-table" concept of making a book.

Singapore-born, Philadelphia-based artist Meei Ling Ng recently produced a series of small, handmade books revolving around the animals who lived in her back alley. The three-volume series, Secret Lives in the Neighborhood, featuring reproductions of Ng’s original acrylic paintings, are hand-bound with hemp string. The 10-page books can be custom-ordered through her website.

“Throughout my art career, I have always valued using environment-friendly and sustainable materials,” says Ng, who calls making her books “meditative”. Doing everything herself is a way for her to “ensure that my art stays sustainable, from start to finish”.

People who buy her books get a certain satisfaction from knowing that she made them herself, she says: “Right off, they know they don’t have a mass-produced book, from the textured feel and look. They know each handcrafted book is unique, with my own touch on it […] from writing the stories to the illustrations and binding.”

“Customers have even taken delight in the details of my shipping materials.”

Chapter 4: Needle & Thread

– in which we take things into our own hands.

In a funhouse-mirror sort of way, books about rare and exotic hand-bound books are having a moment, too.

In Apr-2021, Chronicle Books published The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts and Other Literary Curiosities from History, by Edward Brooke-Hitching. Brooke-Hitching, a writer and rare-book collector, spent more than a decade researching and putting together the tome, which includes a copy of a journal called Fate of the Blenden Hall, written by a shipwrecked captain in penguin’s blood.

And librarian Megan Rosenbloom’s Dark Archives, published by Farrar, Straus & Groux last year (2020) is an investigation into the science and history of books bound in human skin.

In Bridget Collins’ thrilling bestseller The Binding (2019), a teenage farm boy is sent away to be a book-binder’s apprentice after recovering from a mysterious illness. Unfolding slowly, the fantasy novel paints a surreal world in which books are feared for their strange power and book-binders fill a sort of therapist’s role.

I think about Italian author Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, and its narrative about the murder of a manuscript illuminator in a monastery. Eco’s novel was a book of its time—its philosophical detours into the unreliability of signs and semiotics, secrets and censorship, fitting in a postmodernist era of Cold War and the individual’s (ultimately futile) search for answers. The book, in Eco’s postmodernist narrative, is a dangerous object, its means of production shrouded in secrecy and its distribution dependent on corrupted power-play. A symbol of the elite and literati, and a metaphor for how arbitrary the relationship between signifier and signified is, in a world where meaning has started to break down.

In contrast, these days, making books alone, to the quiet shuffling of paper from the unmuted microphones of others on a Zoom grid, is a process in which art is demystified and a global spirit of generosity exists in sharing skills. We share our handiwork online, on Slack chat groups. Nobody goes blind like the anonymous manuscript illuminators trapped in their draughty monasteries. A reading and online exhibition is organised for late July 2021 to showcase and promote the resulting work of the creative publishing seminar.

How far we have come since, with the symbol of the book evolving from that of solitary endeavour to a communal effort to collect the diverse and hold them beautifully together. To band together, loose leaves organically transforming into book blocks, finding strength in numbers.

Clara Chow is the founder of Hermit Press.

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