Category Archives: book shaped objects

Tying the Future to a Thread


J. Howard Atkins, Tying the Future to a Thread. Medford, Mass: Oversewing Machine Co. of America, Inc., 1968. Front Cover. Middleton Z 269.5 .A8 1968.

What appears to be a 1970’s post-apocalyptic novel concerning the dangers nuclear stockpiling is actually about a far more dangerous situation. OVERSEWING!

A gem from the Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Bernard C. Middleton Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology.


Could pass for an artist book installation. J. Howard Atkins, Tying the Future to a Thread. Medford, Mass: Oversewing Machine Co. of America, Inc., 1968. p. 18. Middleton Z 269.5 .A8 1968.

But seriously, friends don’t let friends oversew.

Miniature Books and Gargantuan Books

Miniature books are like cheap crack for many bookbinders and collectors. Once you get a taste, you want more. Miniature books are usually defined as being less than three inches in every dimension, though some accept them up to four. For me, the ultimate miniature book — which is quite likely unattainable — would be one that not only looks like its big brother, but also replicates its function.

There are 14 book dealers who specialize in them, there is a tiny book show tour, they are often displayed together, and they are collected by many major institutions. There is a a Miniature Book Society. There are special tools and equipment scaled for miniature books. There are a number of workshops on how to make miniature books. Miniature books easily cross the line into toys or jewelry. They are fun and social, and addicts seem to find catharsis in hanging with their own, admitting their guilty pleasure.

Gargantuan books often stand alone.  Most of us only make one. And swear not to do it again. If you make one, you are not only faced with the expense of materials, difficulty in finding equipment large enough to bind it, but then have to store and exhibit it somewhere. They are proud and boastful; I am the largest, the tallest, heaviest, etc… . Many rare book collections have one special display case for their Audubon, and keep it on more or less permanent exhibition. I’ve never heard of anyone who collects them, or a class devoted to making them.

There isn’t even a standard definition of what a size they should be. So I’ll propose a gargantuan book exceeds 33 inches in any dimension, just slightly larger than the longest side of normal handmade paper.

Many gargantuan books are made with non-traditional materials; some may not have pages, so it is not inappropiate to question if they should be considered books at all. They might be blooks or book shaped objects. Having a sequence of pages, or somehow referencing the idea of a sequence, is a critical difference in my opinion. Of course, it can be argue that any book contains the two basic seeds of a narrative, a before and an after. Eric Kwakkel considers a “real” big book one that is meant to be read, not created as a gimmick. Quality rarely enters the discourse: it’s all about quantity.

Wikipedia and the Guinness World Book of Records offer different accounts of what is the current largest book in the world is; significantly, both are religious texts. Symbolic monuments designed to impress us with their authority and power.

Below are a few gargantuan books I find noteable.


Appearing around 39:12, and again around 1:46:09 is a very well crafted book. It appears to be tooled in gold and blind, with deep type impressions and indentations around the bands on the (leather?) spine. Even the decorative paper sides realistically match the scale of the book. Sensitivity to the scale of details is where the wow factor comes in, both in mini and big books. Thanks to Tom Conroy for bringing this to my attention. The entire opera is spectacular, BTW.


Exhibit two is the The Opera on the Lake of Bregenz. Yes, those are lilliputian actors standing on the open book. The 1999-2000 performance of Verdi’s Masked Ball had the entire stage made up of a book, held open by Death. Thanks to John Townsend for this reference.


Slightly more prosaic is this edition titled Butan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Himalayan Kingdom, which weighs in at 133 lbs, and open is 7 feet by 5 feet.  There are a few copies for sale on ABE books in the $300- $500 range, which must make it one of the cheapest books per square inch available. I imagine the materials alone would have cost more. There is a very nice write-up about it on the University of Washington’s Special Collections site.


The making of this book was well documented a few years ago.  It took a crane to install it into the exhibition space. A heroic production.

I wrote about a 16 foot high book from 1918 bound in cowhide a couple of years ago, which was used to advertise War Bonds.

Other favorites?


Books and Representations of Books on Display at The Cloisters Museum

The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, located in upper Manhattan, quite near my studio. In fact, I think I might be able to see it, if I climbed up on my bench and peeked out the upper left corner of my window. Northern Manhattan is quite different from the rest of the city. It is where the Dutch purchased the island from the Native Americans and there is still even a farmhouse located on Broadway dating to 1784, which is now a museum.

The Cloisters was built (assembled?) in 1938, and consists of four medieval buildings imported from Europe. It is located inside the 66 acres of Fort Tryon park. There are also beautiful gardens, including a nice garden featuring plants used for making dyes and paints. Looking across the Hudson River, there is a stunning view of the Palisades of New Jersey which John D. Rockefeller so admired he purchased 12 miles of shoreline to preserve the naturalistic view from the park.

The Cloisters is not only my favorite museum, but it has my favorite painting,  The Merode Alterpiece. Note to the impecunious: although the Met recommends a $25 entrance fee, you can pay whatever you wish.

In April of 2015, I decided to photograph 34 actual books and works of art which contain representations of books which were on display. This was also a great chance to try a lot of handheld, low light photography with my new Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7, which is proving to be the second best camera I’ve ever owned. There are higher resolution images for most of these on the Met site, searchable by accession number.

If anyone would like to visit my studio, we could take a short detour to the Cloisters and look at the works, discussing what we can — and can’t — learn from looking at representations of books in art. Or you can can use this as a virtual or self guided tour.



This virtual tour starts on the main level in the Late Gothic Hall, and follows a counterclockwise path around the Cuxa Cloister, then jumps to the Gothic chapel, Glass Gallery and the Treasury on the lower level.



Antiphonal, Tempera, gold and ink on parchment, Italian, 1467-70 (60.165)


Detail, Altarpiece with Christ…, Carrara marble, Andrea de Giona, Italian, 1434 (62.128a-i)


Detail, Alterpiece with Scenes of the Life of Saint Andrew, Attributed to the Master of Roussillon, Tempera and gold on wood, Catalan, ca. 1420-30 (06.1211.1-.9)


Detail, Alterpiece with Scenes of the Life of Saint Andrew, Attributed to the Master of Roussillon, Tempera and gold on wood, Catalan, ca. 1420-30 (06.1211.1-.9)


Detail, Alterpiece with Scenes of the Life of Saint Andrew, Attributed to the Master of Roussillon, Tempera and gold on wood, Catalan, ca. 1420-30 (06.1211.1-.9)



Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, Oil on oak, South Netherlandish,  ca. 1377-1444 (56.70a-c) This painting is a hyper real jewel.


Detail, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, Oil on oak, South Netherlandish, ca. 1377-1444 (56.70a-c)


Detail, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Alterpiece), Workshop of Robert Campin, Oil on oak, South Netherlandish, ca. 1377-1444  (56.70a-c) Ok, these are not books, but the next best thing: TOOLS! He is building two mousetraps.



Detail, Paschal Candlestick, Paint on wood, Spanish, Castile-Leon, ca. 1450-1500 (44.63.1a,b)


The Dormition of the Virgin, Oak, German, Cologne, late 15th C., (1973.348)


Detail, The Dormition of the Virgin, Oak, German, Cologne, late 15th C., (1973.348) Quite likely the most accurately depicted book in the entire collection. It is hard to believe this was once painted, and even harder to believe how someone could scrape the paint off! The detail in the position of the hand, the throw-up and drape of the book, and the anguish in the face is unforgettable.



Book of Hours, Published by Thielman Kerver, Paris,1504 (20.53.3)



Detail, Enthroned Virgin and Child, Paint on maple, Spanish, ca. 1280-1300 (53.67)


Saint Martin with the Virgin, Pot metal and colorless glass with vitreous paint, French, 1245-48 (37.173.2,.5)


Detail, Legend of Saint Germain of Paris, Pot metal and colorless glass with vitreous paint, Franch, ca. 1245-47 (1973.262.1)


Detail, Enthroned Virgin and Child, Paint on birch with glass, French, ca. 1130-40 (47.101.15)



Detail, The Annunciation, Carrara marble, Italian, ca. 1180-1200 (60.140)



Detail, The Adoration of the Magi, Limestone, Spanish, ca. 1175-1200 (3077.8)



Detail, Saint Margaret of Antioch, Limestone with paint, Catalan, ca. 1330-40 (47.101.13a)



Detail, Three Scenes from the Infancy of Christ, Pot metal and colorless glass with vitreous paint, Austrian, ca. 1390 (36.39.1a)


Detail, Tomb of Ermengol VII, Count of Urgell, Limestone with traces of paint, Catalan, ca. 1300-1350 (28.95.a-i)


Annunciation, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South German, ca. 1480-1500 (1985.244)


Detail, St. Lambrecht of Maastricht, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1510-20 (32.24.48)


Souls Tormented in Hell, Adapted from Dieric Bouts, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1500-1510 (1990.119.2) BOOK BURNING!




Saint Peter with a Heraldic Shield, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1520 (12.137.6)


Annunciation, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, South Netherlandish, ca. 1500-1510 (1972.245.1)


Detail, Saint John on Patmos with Apocalyptic Visions, Manner of Dierick Vellert, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, Antwerp? ca. 1520-30 (32.24.65)




Saint Jerome in his Study, Style of the Pseudo-Ortkens, Colorless glass with vitreous glass and silver stain, Brussels, ca. 1520 (1998.304.3)



Detail, Bishiop of Assisi Giving a Palm to Saint Clare, Oil, gold and silver on wood, German, ca. 1360 (1984.343) It appears to be a sewn, but unbound book? A wrapper?


Detail, Reliquary Plaque with Christ Blessing, Walrus ivory, German, ca. 1200 (65.65.174)


Detail, Diptych with the Coronation of the Virgin and the Last Judgment, Elephand Ivory, French, ca. 1260-70 (1970.324.7a)


Detail, Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist, Elephant ivory, Carolingian, early 9th C. (1977.421) The inscription reads “The word of John soars to heaven like an eagle.” It looks like the eagle is carrying a small book. The plaque may have once been from a book cover.


Plaque with the Crucifixion and the Holy Women at the Sepulchre, Elephant ivory, Carolingian, ca. 870 (1974.266) Likely a central decoration for the front board of a Gospel book.


Detail, Evangelists Mark and Luke, Gilded copper and glass, French, ca. 1220-30 (2012.70.1,2)


The Cloisters Apocalypse, Tempera and ink on parchment, French, ca. 1330 (68.174) It is telling that the binding materials are not listed at all. For the Met, a book is the text and images..


The Hours of Jeanne d’Evreus, Tempera and ink on parchment, French, ca. 1324-28 (54.1.2) This book was recently beautifully rebound by Maria Fredericks in shaped mat board and alum tawed skin. Note the similarities in the opening and the end band between the book in the Merode Alterpiece and Three Scenes from the Infancy of Christ stained glass (36.39.1a)


The Psalter and Hours of Bonne of Luxembourg, Tempera, gold and ink on parchment, French, before 1349 (69.86)


The Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, Tempera, gold and ink on parchment, French, 1405-1408/9 (54.1.1a or b) Again, recently rebound by Maria Fredericks into two volumes.


Detail, Thirty Five Panels with Scenes from the life of Christ, Oak, French, early 16th C. (50.147.1) It appears the book is partially damaged.


Detail, Thirty Five Panels with Scenes from the life of Christ, Oak, French, early 16th C. (50.147.7)

Smuggler’s Bible

For reasons unknown to me, there are a number of these late 18th C. French bindings that have been converted into smuggler’s bibles.  The stamping on the front cover was done at a later date, and the inside of the textblock seems to have been edge glued, and the back flyleaf used to line the edges.  The bottom is the back board pastedown.  I always wonder what happened to the bulk of the text– thrown away or burned, most likely.  

So if I am “reading” this book correctly, with little or no text, it is the materials and the structure of the binding that give it meaning.  In a way, this book is a eloquent example of how a conservator approaches a book.   Firstly, through the lens of the history of technology, it is the physical substrates that support and protect the text that are documented, analyzed and conserved.   Secondly, we have not time, interest  or are unable to read the language of most of the books we work on.  Do we even need the text?

But this book also demonstrates how the brutal alteration of an artifact can distort our understanding of history.   I’m very interested in late 18th C. French bookbinding, and even though there are many extant examples, each one that is lost  distorts our understanding of the total production and subtle workshop variations. It is that it is very difficult to determine when this book was altered, so it gives the unscrupulous an easy excuse of saying they bought the book in this condition.  The market currently values destroyed or altered books such as this more than an intact volume. 

There is even a company called “Secret Storage Books” that currently makes new versions.  If I were being more stringent with my own ethics, I guess I shouldn’t have purchased this book, since it encourages more of them to be made.  

Octave Uzanne, writing in 1904, in The French Bookbinders of the Eighteenth Century writes: “‘Sham books’, simple wooden boxes, and sometimes mere mouldings, covered with gauffered and gold-tool leathers, with which they filled the empty shelves of a pretentious library, or with which they garnished the doors.”  The books below, however are real books that have been made to resemble the sham books he talks about.

























Jane Eagan kindly sent this image of a similar book she owns.





















On the 24th of March, 2009 I was watching Looney Tunes historic Chuck Jones animation, and from 1939 an 8 minute short titled “Sniffles and the Bookworm” featured a smuggler’s bible.  Watch the book on the bottom right.  I barely had time to grab my camera, so I missed a better shot earlier in the movie.












Wood Book With Drawer



I picked this up at a second hand antique store in upstate NY. The bottom of the drawer says “FLEMISH / 725 / ..ART..” Perhaps it is tourist art? I’m not sure what the title “BANDS” refers to, or why there is a well executed monk on the front cover. The foreedge has a nice curve to it, and the burned and incised decoration covers the back cover as well. Looks like it might hold cigarettes? It is an odd little thing.

Sony and Stony



I am struck by how closely the dimensions of  the 7th century Stonyhurst Gospel (now renamed as St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John) match the screen size of the Sony Portable Reader System PRS-505.  On the left is a model of the Gospel, which is described in the literature as being 134-138mm high, and 90-95mm wide (1:1.49).  The screen of the Sony Reader is 124mm high and 92mm wide (1:1.35).   Coincidence? Perhaps. But might their dimensions relate to our hand size or comfortable handheld viewing range?  These books are separated by 13 centuries!

I played with the Sony last weekend at the Small Press Fair in NYC. I was impressed by the resolution of the eink at any viewing angle, but page turns were agonizingly slow, and accompanied by an epeliptic inducing flash of background reversal– the text would go white, and the “page” black for a split second.  I also tried out a prototype of the next version, which has a touch screen interface, but doubt this would be a great advantage when reading.There is a promotion on now at Sony—  enter promo code:  10sonyclassic    You can get 10 free ebooks to read on your computer or ebook reader  from the “classics” collection– think 19th C. standard DWM’s.  

I think the Stonyhurst needs a tagline too.  How about “The Stonyhurst: Carry the Gospel of St. John in one hand.”

Window Dressing

This is not an image of water damage, an art project or a disaster recovery workshop.  Instead, it is the current window dressing of the Anthropologie store located at 5th Ave. and 16th St. in New York City.  At least a couple of thousand books appear to have been opened 180 degrees, wetted, then rolled into these large cylinders, as if the books were returning to the trees from which they came.  This display could be interpreted as an incisive a comment on the relationship between advertising and narrative structure– even a non-functioning narrative (the destroyed book) is powerful enough to be co-opted by advertising. Maybe this display is a political statement on the torturing of physical objects, denying them of their own meaning, forcing them to deliver another message, in this case to sell items in the store. Most likely, however, the relationship between this display and the overpriced crap luxury consumer goods that this store retails wasn’t even considered.

I’m always a bit uneasy when I see books that have been mutilated, whether it is done in the name of art, censorship, vandalism, or commerce.  I would have given no pause to this window if it were filled with broken laptop computers or ebook readers, which indicates some fundamental differences between our relationship to virtual and “real” books.  It is a sign that book arts have entered the mainstream when designers adopt their techniques– part of the filtering of ideas from “high” art to popular culture.  I noticed  Brooklyn Public Library and Appleton Public Library (Wisconsin) stamps on some of the tail edges, but all libraries have to deaccession books. Is it better to do a surreptitious run to the landfill or recycling center, or should they “live a second life” as some might argue this display illustrates? 

Many librarians subscribe to the broken windows theory — books that are poorly shelved and messy tend to encourage more disorder and damage.  And many conservators bemoan the thoughtless handling that many patrons (and sometimes curators!) display when handling a fragile, rare book with the careless aplomb more commonly observed at telephone booths–holding the telephone book precariously in one hand while inserting the change and dialing with the other, for example.  

Although this display sets a horrifying example about how books can be handled and stored, what concerns me more is that it represents an insidious cultural trend — specifically a disregard for the physical substrates used to transmit and store information, and generally a de-privileging  (perhaps denial?) of human interaction with the physical world.