In my desk drawer, lies a journal. Leather-bound with a tie, rough edges, cream paper. Picked up from my mother-in-law two years ago from an artisan in New York City. In two years, I’ve gone through two Moleskines and recently picked up a Leuchtturm1917 to try out (sorry Moleskine, 10 years with you and it’s time for something new). My hand-bound journal remains empty. Not out of hate for it, but for the opposite. I have loads to write, but I want to fill it with something more than daily thoughts and planning and chicken-scratched ideas for stories and bad first drafts of poems. I want the words within the journal to be as thoughtful as the outside.
Bookbinding is a centuries old tradition dating back to India in early B.C.E. Binding palm leaves together or strips of bark with twine, sutras would be scratched onto the surfaces. Following palm leaves, scrolls became a common form of book creation. Strips were created by splitting plant stems and cutting them. They were then soaked, hammered into sheets, polished with ivory, and joined together. The most devastating loss of knowledge in history is the burning of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Around 700,000 volumes of scrolls were kept here before they perished. Knowledge entirely unrecoverable.
Now, for modern, mass-distributed books, machines create “perfect bindings.” Soft-covered books simply glued to the pages it holds. A functional method for popular books like Game of Thrones but a method that will fall apart for any avid reader. My over-loved and dingy Harry Potter books can attest to that. But even with the rise of machinery, there are still groups of artisans hand-stitching books together and mending old ones to salvage their decaying bindings.
To better understand the process of bookbinding, knowing a bit about a book’s anatomy is necessary.
Selecting a book from the shelf, our eyes are initially drawn to the spine. The title neatly embossed with gold leaf and flowing calligraphy. The spine becomes an extension of a book’s personality. A book’s spine, much like a human spine, is a crucial part of a book’s body. A supportive structure, the spine helps keep the book strong and mighty. Acting as a protective layer, the spine works to keep the inner pages safe and pristine.
Attached to the spine, layered on top of one another, are bone-white structures. Aligned strategically like dominoes. If one shift’s out of place the whole structure suffers. These neatly folded groups of pages known to bookbinders as signatures. These are the stories we read. The information we consume.
The covered dressings of a book create a specific aesthetic for each unique story it holds. Hugging the pages tight, material can range from cloth to Nigerian goatskin to decorative cardboard to various leathers and in older times, leaves, vellum (uncured leather), metals, and other unique coverings.
Stitching these pieces together is crucial to successful bookbinding. Section sewn books are the most secure method of bookbinding. Signatures (pages) are folded into sections and then sewn into the section along the spine. The spine is glued together for extra support and then encased in a hardcover, material-bound cardboard. Compared to “perfect bindings” which are simply glued, section sewn books are particular and take longer to produce.
Like humans, it’s inevitable books will age. Spines grow weaker, covers become tattered, lettering becomes worn. With age, comes need for extra care. Readers, scholars, librarians, scientists, priests, lawyers thumb through books daily, flipping through page after page, and honoring the contents within. Eventually causing unintentional deterioration. Book-binders are crucial in restoration. Taking apart and restitching an old book can take hours at a time. Patience, a knack for tiny details, and steady hands are needed to bring life back into old books.
Restoration and conservation are not bookbinding’s only purpose. At Renaissance Faires and Craft Shows, you can find tables lined with blank, leather-bound journals. On Etsy, a plethora of empty sketchbooks are bound and stitched for an artist’s hands. You can even find miniature books bound in walnut shells.
Bookbinders, Jessica Naomi, and Margaux Kent, handcraft journals for people to use. Margaux Kent, owner of the successful shop Peg & Awl said bookbinding for her began at a young age. “I have been binding books in some way or other for most of my life. I still have a book that I made when I was 6 called it "Circis Actors, for mommy.” Journaling has always been apart of her life. For her, bookbinding and journaling naturally went hand-in-hand. “I have called my journaling an ‘inexplicable lure.’ And the bookbinding simply grew out of necessity.”
For Jessica Naomi, book-binding is a creative hobby. Creating miniature “fairy books” whenever she feels inspired, her book-binding is unique. Compared to antique finishes and leather, Jessica often uses softer material like cloth. “I was into prop work for a while. I did in-depth books with gold-leaf, leatherwork, clay amulet settings, and edging each individual page. Now I’m into visions that repurpose scrap or found objects in nature. Handmade paper, natural materials, and whatever else I have lying around.”
She’ll dye paper with watercolor, add transparent plastic pockets she fills with hand-drawn butterflies (reminiscent of pop-up children’s books), or paint the edges gun-metal gray to add new dimensions to her books. Her covers are embroidered with small pearl bobbles and shown stitchings.
“I love the idea of the red string of destiny in Japanese folklore so I use red thread in any project. There is also the Japanese tradition of rebuilding or resealing broken glass objects with gold so I use gold thread and gold patching often.”
Even with the rise in technology, books have yet to slow down. As long as books and artists and writers continue to exist, a bookbinders delicate hands and keen eye will be needed. There is an archaic art in bookbinding machines will never be able to fully replace.
I tug on the wooden white knob of my desk drawer, pulling the leather-bound journal from its lonely hiding spot in the corner. On top of the desk, a quill sits next to ink. I take a deep breath, untie the leather, and open to the first page. I stop worrying about writing something perfect. Grabbing the quill, I carefully write out a quote: “No eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn.” I begin, letting the journal inspire me and knowing writing, of any kind, is sufficient enough for its pages.