Category Archives: books

Exhibition Review: Armenia. Art, Objects, Body Parts, and Books

Armenia!“, now on view at the Met, is one of the largest Armenian art shows ever in North America, containing more than 140 works of art, objects, body parts (in reliquaries), and books. It is not only a great art exhibition, but a great show for bibliophiles: roughly half the items on view are books. The show spreads calmly over seven galleries, with no videos or recorded sounds playing, and ample space between the objects. Even though it was packed with viewers the Sunday afternoon I visited, there weren’t lines in front of any particular object. The minimal gallery introductions and short captions reinforced a direct engagement with the objects, rather than reading about them. Interspersing the books with other objects initiated a dialogue between them.

Gospel Book with Gilded-Silver Covers and Embroidered Pouch. J. P. Morgan MS M.621. I’ve never seen another binding that has just one spine strap, like this one. Did it serve as a means of attachment to something else?

The craft similarities between reliquaries and full-metal books were hard to miss. For example, the 17th century gilded silver covers on the Gospel Book above, and the Hand Reliquary of Saint Abulmuse (L.1988.63) have a very similar construction. The stunning covers of both signal their importance as objects of veneration, and at the same time hide their inner contents. The insides of these objects are deeply personal, and almost at odds with the elaborately decorated exterior.  The reliquary houses body parts of someone, the book houses the thoughts of someone. Is there an object that does both?

Expositionitis. n. [ek-spuh-zish-uhn-ahy-tis] : A horrible desease that temporarily blinds museum professionals to the actual objects in an exhibition. Instead, the afflicted spend all their time looking at a crooked frame, an over cut mat, how a particular object was repaired or strapped, prominent shadows, a dust bunny in the corner of a case, etc…  “I didn’t even notice the carved ivory elephant in the corner, my expositionitis was so bad!”

I must have had a mild attack, since I am still thinking about a number of books open to a full 180 degrees, which can cause stress to the binding. A more restricted opening is generally better, and it is still relatively easy to view a two page spread. It also sets a poor precedent for the display of books in such a pre-eminant institution.

Alexander Romance, Sulu Manastir, 1544. Copied and illuminated by Zak’ariay of Gnunik’; d. 1576. John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, UK. Kasemake cradle by Mark Furness.

Mark Furness, Senior Conservator at the University of Manchester, designed and made an interesting cradle. He and Elaine Sheldon have been working for a number of years on museum board cradles cut on a Kasemake boxmaking machine. I like the softness of museum board when making contact with leather. Some might find the aesthetics slightly distracting, though I’m sure this is something that is evolving. Mark also did a great job of strapping: note the zero textblock sag. An advantage is it ships completely flat for easy transport, and assembles without any adhesives. This version is quite strong and easily supports a heavy parchment textblook/ wooden board book easily. These cradles are inexpensive and easy to recycle.

I’m glad to see someone experimenting with something other than acrylic. Acrylic is so hard and flat, it rarely conforms closely with the undulations of hand made book boards and hand pared leather, let alone metal furniture. This can result in the weight of a book being concentrated in a few small areas.

Grakal, Liturgical Book Stand , 1272 with modern additions. History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan (171).

The most interesting cradle, technically a book stand, was this 13th century grakal, a liturgical book stand. Although it is similar to an Islamic rehal, there are important differences. A traditional rehal is cut from a single piece of wood. The grakel was made of two seporate pieces. How they hinge together is also quite different.

A modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. This is one plank that has been partially cut into two.

To make a rehal, holes are drilled, as you can see in the image below. Then a thin sawblade, like a coping or turning saw, is inserted and the joints cut, and the plank cut in two. The ways a book sits in a rehal or grakal are also quite different. A book in a rehal sits in this cut out hinge, which also flattens out, creating a space for the spine. A book in a grakal sits on top of the leather sling, and has a metal rod that the two sides hinge from. Both, however, are lightweight, collapsable, portable, and support a book in use.

Detail of the hinge of a modern rehal, which I purchased in Turkey, 2009. A small saw blade was inserted into the drilled holes to begin the cuts. Making a model of one of these is on my to do list.

Detail of hinge area of the Grakal. Note the seam from the two pieces of wood.

I’m almost certain the top and bottom parts of this grakal are made from separate pieces of wood and glued together. The book rests on a leather top piece which lessens the stress on the hinge. Given the fact it has held up for nine centuries, the construction is more than adequate!

Gospel Book, Monastery of Manuk Surb Nshan, K’ajberunik’, 1386. J. Paul Getty Museum (MS Ludwig II 6).

My favorite piece in the show is this page from a Gospel Book, 1386. On the top are two scribes, and under them are two students burnishing the paper in preparation for writing, with extremely tall burnishers. Stylistically, they look quite similar to smaller, one handed Western glass mullers. The scribe mentions, in the text, he wanted to thank the students  (“his angels”) for this generally thankless, but important task. Paper was burnished to make it smoother for painting and writing on, and more parchment-like in appearance.

The last gallery of the show included a number of highly skilled manuscripts made in the 17th century. It surprised me to see the skilled transmission of craft skills persisting so late into what we in the West consider print culture. One of the primary takeaways from the show was how Armenia does not fit neatly into the Eastern-Western culture divisions many of us still regularly invoke, as well as challenging our notion of when Medieval culture ended.

If you can’t make it to the show, which closes January 13, 2019, the catalog is very informative, with all 143 objects described in text and photographs, and several longer essays. NY TImes review of Armenia!

Vesalius, Sixteenth Century German Bookbinding Thread and Dissection Tools

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, 1543, 235. Source: https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/Images/1200_pixels/Vesalius_Pg_235.jpg

While looking at the surgical tools in De Humani Corporis, I ran across an interesting bit of information from a Cambridge University Online Exhibition. The image is huge, and can be examined in detail. In the text, Vesalius mentions that either silk threads or bookbinder’s threads could be used to prepare a cadaver. In his opinion, German bookbinding thread is the best quality, since it is stronger, thinner, and more well-twisted than thread from other countries. I haven’t noticed this about German 16th C. sewing thread (in large part due to the inflexible spines, see the post below) but it is certainly true for their typically tightly cabled sewing supports. One takeaway is that the thread bookbinders used was the best quality available. Vesalius also describes heating a needle  in order to bend it into a “C” or parenthesis shape, a practice bookbinders still perform today. I’m assuming these bent needles, labeled “N” are stuck in bookbinding thread wrapped up in a bun shape.  This is likely the earliest image of bookbinding thread.

Anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the binding of books in human skin, has a lurid and enduring fascination. Here; however, we have the cadaver fabricated using a bookbinding material and borrowed or shared tools: Bibliodermic anthropegy???

***

More tools appear on the title page of this book, where a man is stropping or sharpening his razor under the dissection table. The portrait of Vesalius also contains a partially hidden razor lying on the table as he holds body parts of a cadaver. In this case, the razor represents his practical knowledge and experience. His intellectual and theoretical prowess is symbolized by the inkwell and manuscript page on the table behind arm.

The Cambridge exhibition considers that these are ordinary tools, altered by Vesalius, a testament to his manual dexterity. He didn’t need “fancy” instruments, but could use commonly available ones. I wonder about this interpretation, though. Given how many tools even today are shared — and altered — by many crafts, I wonder how many specialist instruments were made only for surgeons. There is no mention of this kind of specialization in J.B. Himsworth’s 1953 The Story of Cutlery, Although it is an excellent resource, it is far from comprehensive.

 

Detail: Title page, Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, 1543. Source:https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/Images/1200_pixels/Vesalius_TitlePg.jpg

 

Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, 1543, xii. Source:https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies/Images/1200_pixels/Vesalius_Portrait.jpg

 

 

 

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?

 

Peter Verheyen’s Research on Ernst Collin. A Forthcoming Letterpress Edition

Peter Verheyen recently announced his translation of Ernst Collin’s Pressbengel will soon be published in a letterpress limited edition. If you have not encountered his omnipresent online presence, you are the last. Start here: philobiblon.com.

Peter answered three questions about this project:
1. Why did you call this “The Bonefolder”?
2. What do you see as the role of tools in this work?
3. Why should someone purchase this limited edition when you have already released a version online for free?

 

Bone Folder title-2

Title page of “The Bone Folder”

 

Peter writes:

I’ve actually received questions about the choice of title since I first started with this project back in 2008/9. Collin was writing from the perspective of one for whom the German bookbinding tradition was their DNA, despite the anglophilic predilections of the firm of his family – the court bookbinders of W. Collin in Berlin. All binding traditions have their own unique tools or techniques, and in the German tradition the pressbengel seems to be one of those. The image below from Paul Adam’s Lehrbücher der Buchbinderei: Die einfachen handwerksmässigen Buchbinderarbeiten ohne Zuhilfenahme von Maschinen (1924), a very basic introduction to binding without the use of „machines“ shows the binder tightening the screws of a German backing press using a pressbengel.

The Pressbengel had been translated into Czech (1925) and Italian (1996)  before I started with my mine. In Czech the title translates as “Wrench” and in the Italian it was given as the “About the Art of Bookbinding,” so there was precedent for a retitling. Collin’s text is iconic in the German bookbinding literature and was meant to introduce the bookbinding trade and its traditions to a lay audience. What tool could be more iconic in bookbinding than the bone folder and recognizeable to todays book workers and bibliophiles.

Collin’s iconic Pressbengel focuses on the core set of German binding techniques that a bibliophile would encounter, describing these in a fair level of detail including describing differences with other national traditions, largely French. Throughout, as he describes these techniques he discusses tools and how they are used, but not with much detail given to the tools themselves. What he does do in this dialog is to juxtapose the quality of the hand-bound book with that produced by machines. In an example from the last day on tooling and finishing, the Bibliophile insists that the Master do all his tooling by hand – no machines…

BOOKBINDER: Well, even then it might not be possible to avoid using a blocking press to form some larger, more complex designs, for example a coat of arms or some specialized text elements.

BIBLIOPHILE: No, Master, under no circumstances. In a work whose distinguishing character is determined by the work of the hands, there is no place for machines. If binders are so quick to switch back and forth between handwork and that of machines, they shouldn’t be surprised if their work becomes devalued. The masters of old were able to put large seals or coats of arms on their bindings, too, without resorting to a blocking press.

There are two things that set this new edition apart from the past one. The first are the photographs of John (Hans) Schiff depicting the bookbinding process and taken after the publication of the Bremer Presse’s Faust being bound in 1925 and the emigration of Schiff to the US in the latter half of the 1930s. The photographs are also part of never published series of 34 original negatives, so publishing a selection of them is significant, especially as they are very rich tonally with a great detail.

In selecting the images, Don Rash and I felt that it was important to show the hands of the binder at work in order to personalize the process. The images selected, one for each “day” in the text, depict: Sewing by hand over raised cords on the sewing frame; Sewing by hand over raised cords on the sewing frame; Attaching the boards to the textblock using the frayed ends of the raised cords; Sewing the headbands; Shaping the headcap on a leather binding; Gold tooling the board utilizing gold leaf and a decorative roll. The image of the bone folder working the leather over the cords is exclusive to the prospectus and not used in the text.

 

Schiff, Hans John - Bremer Press Series - 24

Photo courtesy Peter Verheyen, http://pressbengel.blogspot.com

 

The other thing that sets this new edition apart from the past edition, that yes was published open access online, is the completely new and greatly expanded introduction that provides much greater familial context to Ernst Collin and his background as the grandson and son of the last German court bookbinders describing their origins beginning with the early Jewish migration to Berlin in the first half of the 1800s, their growth as a significant trade bindery with close ties to the court and leading advocates for a new German bookbinding trade and tradition. Wrapped up in all this was the creation of the German empire, World War I, to the rise of Nazi Germany.

The introduction also corrects several errors in Collin’s biography that were introduced in national bibliographies, edited correspondences, and elsewhere, disambiguating him from “the other Ernst” that lived in Berlin at the same time, and his fate of being murdered in the Shoah. It also gives a much better sense of the broad range of Collins writings, including describing the other translations and editions of The Pressbengel. In addition it provides a description of the life and work of John (Hans) Schiff, the photographer.

This project became deeply personal to me when I was contacted by a geneologist who believed she was related to the Collins by marriage, and whose questions made me dig deeper into the history of the family and the writings of Ernst Collin. It was only appropriate that these findings be included in a new edition. Pairing this edition with the exquisite photographs of Schiff (who was able to escape Collin’s fate) makes the Don Rash’s Boss Dog Press edition even more special, and builds on the other titles he has issued on the topic of the German bookbinding tradition that to date have focused on the writings of his mentor Fritz Eberhardt who trained with Ignatz Wiemeler, among others.

The prospectus provides more details on the edition of 100 copies that will be available in quarter leather, full paper, and sheets for binding – an edition that is seeing interest (and orders) from libraries, bibliophiles, and binders. I would love to see an exhibit of the bindings that our peers create with the sheets, something more than the successful Bind-O-Rama on the downloadable sheets that have been available since the publication of the first translation in 2009. Ultimately, what is more attractive than a fine hand-bound book paired with original illustrations – no online/”e” text can duplicate that haptic experience.

 

Schiff, Hans John - Bremer Press Series - 18

Photo courtesy Peter Verheyen, http://pressbengel.blogspot.com

 

This has been one of the longest research projects I have undertaken, and the findings have been shared “in real time” via my Pressbengel Project blog under “Colliniana” and more formally in the The Collins: W. Collin, Court Bookbinders & Ernst Collin, the Author of the Pressbengel that I published online open access in English and German. Though I grew up bilingual, lived and worked in Germany for several years, and converse in German quite a bit verbally and in writing, doing this project bilingually was a real and significant challenge.

In the end I am quite happy with the outcome as these texts include much more of Ernst Collin’s familial context, images of bindings and other items that W. Collin produced, and a “history of the life” with description of Ernst Collin’s writings that describe the German bookbinding trade, its practitioners, and the economic and political context of a dynamic yet turbulent time in Germany. The texts also include a title-level bibliography with chronological and subject lists of Ernst Collin’s known writings. None of this would have been possible without the digital collections that have come online, so the bibliography is also online on the Pressbengel Project blog along with links to a spreadsheet that includes links to the digital content where available.

Together I hope that these contribute to closing the dearth of information on German bookbinding traditions lamented by Tom Conroy in his section on the “German Influence on American Hand Binding” that was published as part of his “Teaching Genealogies of American Hand Bookbinders” in the Guild of Book Workers’ Journal, Vol. 28, 1990.

Mi-type

The Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette. No. 1051,Saturday September 30, 1843, 265.

I recall hearing that most type is about 50% redundant if the only consideration is legibility. If so, I’m interested in why mi-type, or something like it, never caught on. If the entire history of print was reduced by half the material costs—assuming it was just a legible— this would have been significant in labor/ cost/ carbon reduction.

The Bang

Screen Shot 2014-05-21 at 7.04.08 PM

Quite likely the most useful, yet infrequently available typographical symbol from the 1960’s. The interrobang. What‽ You can find it in Special Characters of Helvetica, Courier, Palatino, and a few others.