Books are the backbone of many an editorial career so it was appropriate that the annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) should include a session on bookbinding. It was also apposite that this should take place in Birmingham, whose place in the history of books and printing is perhaps less well known than it should be.
During the excellent pre-conference walking tour taking in key sites of the city’s literary past our guide had imparted several nuggets, such as the significant role of Birmingham-based John Baskerville, creator of the eponymous typeface.
But let’s go back a few years – to Sumerian Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC, where we find the first written records in the form of tablets (no, not that sort!). These have survived better than some subsequent book forms (‘book’ being defined essentially as a string of characters telling a story), in that if a Sumerian ‘library’ caught fire, the clay tablets just got harder! Angela Sutton, a professional bookbinder for 45 years, took us through the development of the book form through the centuries, involving palm leaves, papyrus, vellum, parchment and – eventually, thanks to the Chinese in around 105 AD – paper in its various forms.
Early paper was, not surprisingly, rather basic, made as it was of materials such as plant fibre and old fishing nets (the latter does, however, give the Chinese a claim to be the first recyclers). At first paper was used more for wrapping and other non-writing purposes. By the 700s, gypsum was being used to fill in tiny holes to produce a smoother surface more adapted to the brush strokes of early Chinese calligraphers.
The next development came thanks to the Arabs, who employed materials such as linen and flax to produce more resilient, smoother paper. Through the Moorish occupation of Iberia, paper reached Spain in 1085 and was in use in France and Italy within 200 years.
Before the industrial revolution, the largest sheet of paper was limited to the size of the mould that could be held by a man dipping it into a bath of the liquidised raw materials. (Wood-pulp was viable as a base material by the 1850s.) Pages for books as we know them were cut from these giant sheets, known as elephants, down to sizes including folio (half), crown (half again), half-crown (half of that half) and foolscap – the imperial standard for writing and typing paper until the 1970s when metric-based A4 took over.
Long before this, however, that clever man Johannes Gutenberg had appeared on the scene to bring the process of printing – previously hand-stamped using wood blocks – into the modern (well, Medieval) age, putting generations of monastic scribes out of business. The Gutenbergs were goldsmiths and Johannes brought various crafts from metalwork to the aid of printing, pouring molten lead into moulds to make large numbers of identical characters, and using presses adapted from wine- and cheese-making and ink developed from new oil-based paints favoured by early Renaissance artists. Gutenberg’s first book – a bible, of course – used some 300 sheepskins. William Caxton brought mechanised printing to England, but his first efforts were of poor quality.
The market for books was limited, of course, by the fact that only a relatively small number of people could read – and here Birmingham makes its major appearance in the story. In the 1700s John Baskerville developed a new, fast-drying printers’ ink that helped speed up (and thus reduce the cost of) book production, perfectly timed for the educational reforms of the 19th century that led to a huge growth in literacy – in turn helping Birmingham’s metal industry grow to produce some 85% of the world’s pen nibs.
THE ART OF BOOKBINDING
Nobody needed to tie clay tablets together, so there were no Sumerian bookbinders. Then came scrolls (rolled) and codices (folded). The latter did require some form of binding but bookbinding as we know it came about in the 5th century AD.
Of course there is much more to bookbinding than the basic techniques that I and the other participants learned in the session; for one thing, there was not time for us to work with leather, although Angela did bring along some beautiful examples.
The essential technique still involves folding and sewing. Tools of the trade include a page folder (a hard strip, ideally made of bone), a sharp awl to make holes in the folds of the sheets, a bookbinder’s needle, and waxed thread. A good eye – and patience – also helps, as the more accurately the holes in the fold are spaced and the tidier the thread is drawn, the better the result.
I would have to kill you, dear reader, if I told you the correct order in which to sew the thread through the holes; suffice to say that those at the session mastered things well enough to make small notebooks that look ready to stand the test of time.
With glue-bound paperbacks (and most hardbacks) far outselling traditionally sewn case-bound editions, some may think that the days of ‘traditional’ books are numbered. But just remember all those predictions about the paperless office, and the death of the printed book at the hand of the e-book. Sales of e-books plateaued in 2015, and it seems that many readers still prefer the feel of a real book and want ‘page turner’ to remain a physical action, not just a genre of writing. Books with sewn spines stay open much better than glued ones, so the skills that Angela imparted to our small group will probably be around for a long time to come. I hope so.