Read THE CLOTHING OF A BOOK of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on

The binding of a book is its most conspicuous feature, the part which forms its introduction to the public and by which too often it is judged and valued; yet the binding is not an integral portion of the volume. It may be changed many times without essentially changing the book; but if the printed pages are changed, even for others identical to the eye, the book becomes another copy. The binding is, therefore, a part of a book’s environment, though the most intimate part, like our own clothing, to which, indeed, it bears a curious resemblance in its purpose and its perversions.

Human clothing is for protection and adornment. That of a book involves two other demands mutually so contradictory that bookbinding has always offered a most attractive challenge to the skill of the handicraftsman. The first demand is that the book when closed shall form a well-squared and virtually solid block, like the rectangle of wood from which its first predecessors were split, and shall be able to stand alone, unsupported. The second demand is that this same object, when open, shall lie flat at any point and display all its leaves in turn as fully, and far more conveniently, than if they had never been fastened together. Whatever may be true of other clothing, it is eminently true of a book’s that the part which really counts is the part which is never seen. Only the ornamental portion of a book’s covering is exposed. The portions which protect the book and render it at once firm and flexible are out of sight and unheeded by the ordinary reader. Hence the existence of so much bookbinding that is apparently good and essentially bad, and hence the perpetual timeliness of attempts like that of the present chapter, to point out what binding is and should be. The processes in bookbinding by which its different ends of utility and ornament are achieved are known under the two heads of Forwarding and Finishing.

Forwarding includes many processes, literally “all but the finishing.” It is to forwarding that a book owes its shapeliness, its firmness, its flexibility, and its durability. Forwarding takes the unfolded and unarranged sheets as delivered by the printer and transforms them into a book complete in all but its outermost covering of cloth or leather. The first process is to fold the sheets and reduce their strange medley of page numbers to an orderly succession. This is assuming that there is a whole edition to be bound. If it consists of a thousand copies, then there will be a certain number of piles of folded sheets, each containing a thousand copies of the same pages printed in groups, let us say, of sixteen each. These groups of pages are called sections or signatures. They are now rearranged, or gathered, into a thousand piles, each containing the signatures that belong to one book. The edition is thus separated into its thousand books, which the collator goes over to see that each is perfect. Let us follow the fortunes of a single one. It is not much of a book to look at, being rather a puffy heap of paper, but pressing, rolling, or beating soon reduces it to normal dimensions, and it is then carried forward to the important process of sewing. This is the very heart of the whole work. If the book is badly sewed, it will be badly bound, though a thousand dollars were to be spent upon the decoration of its covering. There is only one best method of sewing, and that is around raised cords, in the way followed by the earliest binders. There are modern machine methods that are very good, but they are only cheap substitutes for the best. The cords must be of good, long-fibered hemp, and the thread of the best quality and the right size drawn to the right degree of tension without missing a sheet. After the sewing the end papers are put in place, the back is glued and rounded, and the mill boards are fitted. Into these last the ends of the cords are laced and hammered. The book is then pressed to set its shape, being left in the press for some days or even weeks. After it is taken out, if the edges are to be treated, they are trimmed and then gilded, marbled, sprinkled, or otherwise decorated. The head band for which many French binders substitute a fold in the leather is now added. It was formerly twisted as the book was sewn, but at present is too often bought ready-made and simply glued on. The book is now forwarded.

The business of the finisher is to cover and protect the work already done on the book, but in such a way as not to interfere with the strength and flexibility that have been gained, and, finally, to add such decoration as may be artistically demanded or within the means of the purchaser. If leather is employed, it must be carefully shaved to give an easily opening hinge, yet not enough to weaken it unnecessarily. This is a most important process and one that must be left largely to the good faith of the binder. If he is unworthy of confidence, his mistakes may long escape notice, but, though buried, they are doomed to an inglorious resurrection, albeit he may count on a sufficient lapse of time to protect himself.

The next and last process of finishing is that of the decorator, whose work passes out of the sphere of handicraft into that of art. His problem is no easy one; it is to take a surface of great beauty in itself, as of calf or morocco, and so treat it as to increase its beauty. Too often, after he has done his utmost, the surface is less attractive to the eye than it was at the beginning. He, therefore, has a task quite different from that of the painter or sculptor, whose materials are not at the outset attractive. This condition is so strongly felt that many booklovers leave their bindings untooled, preferring the rich sensuous beauty and depth of color in a choice piece of leather to any effect of gilding or inlaying. This initial beauty of the undecorated book does not, however, form an impossible challenge, as witness the work of the Eves, Le Gascon, and the binders of such famous collectors as Grolier and de Thou.

It may be well to consider more particularly what the problem of the book decorator is. Though perfectly obvious to the eye and clearly illustrated by the work of the masters, it has been sometimes lost sight of by recent binders. It is, in a word, flat decoration. In the first place he has a surface to work upon that is large enough to allow strength of treatment, yet small enough to admit delicacy; then, whatever in beautiful effects of setting, relief, harmony, and contrast can be brought about by blind tooling, gilding, and inlaying, or by rubbing the surface as in crushed levant, or variegating it as in “tree” or marbled calf, all this he can command. He has control of an infinite variety of forms in tooling; he has only to use them with taste and skill. There is practically no limit to the amount of work that he can put into the binding of a single book, provided that every additional stroke is an additional beauty. He may sow the leather with minute ornament like Mearne, or set it off with a few significant lines like Aldus or Roger Payne; all depends upon the treatment. If he is a master, the end will crown the work; if not, then he should have stopped with simple lettering and have left the demands of beauty to be satisfied by the undecorated leather. Above all, let every decorator stick to flat ornament. The moment that he ventures into the third dimension, or perspective, that moment he invades the province of the draftsman or painter. One does not care to walk over a rug or carpet that displays a scene in perspective, neither does one wish to gaze into a landscape wrought upon the cover of a book, only to have the illusion of depth dispelled upon opening the volume. Embossing is, to be sure, a literal not a pictorial invasion of the third dimension, but its intrusion into that dimension is very slight and involves no cheating of the eye. It has now practically gone out of use, as has the heavy medieval ornamentation of studs or jewels. In cloth covers, which are confessedly edition work and machine made, the rules of ornament need not be so sharply enforced. Here embossing still flourishes to some extent. But the decorative problem is essentially the same in cloth as in leather binding, and the best design will be one that triumphs within the conditions, not outside them. The machines and the division of labor have made sad havoc with binding as a craft. The men in America, at least, who are masters of every process and of all the skill and cunning of the early binders are few, and their thinning ranks are not being filled. Will bookbinding, in spite of a high economic demand, share the fate that has overtaken engraving, or shall we have a renascence of this fascinating handicraft and delightful art, to take its name from the present era?