October 14, 2014 | by

A World Between Covers

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Essay by Jed Perl, originally published in Strange & Wonderful: An Informal Visual History of Manuscript Books and Albums.

What is a book? A book is a world between covers, a realm of fact or fiction or some combination of the two. A book is a distillation of experience, a record of our world turned into a world unto itself. Most books, at least most of the books that we have around us today, certainly most of the ones in the room where I am sitting as I write these words, were produced on a printing press. But of course there were books before there were presses, books in which each word was written by hand, and today we have notebooks and sketchbooks that do not contain pages of printed text. There are also volumes, including some of the most famous ones illustrated by Matisse, in which the pages are not sewn together but are instead gathered loosely in a sort of album. And then there is the e-book, the book without covers or indeed without a fixed physical existence, the virtual book that according to many people who think about such things is a book nonetheless.

The whole question of the nature of the book is of course much in the news today, and much discussed among those who have always loved books, not just the reading of them, but the look and feel of them, the comfort of knowing they are at hand. Books, we are often told, are on their way out; like newspapers and magazines, they are said to be nearly obsolete. I am not so sure. I am cautiously optimistic about the future. I believe there is something rather glib in many of the dire predictions about the death or near death of the book. In any event, for those of us who cannot imagine living without them, it is apparent that they are much more than devices for the delivery of information. Books provide homes for ideas and images. The form—the print, the paper, the cover, the size, the weight—has a relationship with the content, whether the book is a paperback thriller bought at an airport newsstand or a luxurious art book too heavy to carry under one’s arm. There is much magic to be discovered in this marriage of form and content. And nowhere will you find such bookish magic practiced with more brilliance and ingenuity than in the survey of the handmade book that you are holding now. This gathering of volumes, created in many different times and places, is a testament to the power of the book, not as a particular type of information machine, but as a forever mutating possibility, a form that gives lasting authority to facts and fancies, discoveries and dreams.

Here is a collection of books that confounds any easy definition of the nature of the book. If there is something quixotic about most of the volumes included, the majority of which have been created without the slightest assistance from the printing press, is it not also true that there is something quixotic about book culture in general, about the desire to contain so much unruly experience in an object that can be set down on a table or filed away on a shelf? Everybody who has a feeling for books is a dreamer, and that includes the person who picks up the most ordinary paperback at the airport. No doubt some fairly wild dreams have been dreamt by the men and women whose work is included here, for only a special kind of dreamer would be willing, long after the arrival and triumph of movable type, to concoct a book in which each page of text and each picture is made by hand. But the ardor that has drawn many of these authors into what I can only regard as the byways and backwaters of typography, illustration, and literary style also serves to return us to some primal sense of the power of the book, of any book.

Who, one wonders, are the people responsible for such supremely odd volumes? What energies and ambitions come into play? It would take a short story writer to do justice to the characters who planned and executed these handmade volumes. Turn their pages and you feel the force of obsession and the power of conviction, but you also fall under the spell of a benign megalomania. We know the names, and at times even a few facts, about a number of the men and women responsible for these singular creations. We meet here Mr. Morrish, the champion checkers player in Bristol in 1859. He produced a beautiful little volume, its pages full of immaculately rendered checkerboards and variegated patterns of checkers, the circles disposed asymmetrically amid the regularity of the grids, supplying a visual complexity that leaves me with the impression that I am in the presence of some as yet undiscovered early twentieth-century Constructivist painter. Paul-Charles Hamond, a typographer from Angers, is responsible for one of the strangest works, a manuscript of Chateaubriand’s Les Martyrs, completed in 1815, some two hundred pages of microscopic handwriting, each letter no more than an-eighth-of-an-inch high. Then there is Malinda Wells’s diary of the weeks she spent at the Keystone summer camp in Brevard, North Carolina in 1938. Malinda records what went on each day, sometimes she includes witty cartoonish drawings of young people with sexy come-hither eyes, and she has stuck between the pages tiny souvenirs—the wrapper from a Hershey’s bar, a laundry list, little nothings that recall the experiences of a given day. On July 29th she wrote that she “Danced with lots of counselors and with the cutest boy (Louie Moe). Bob Lambert was my date and I’ve never had a better time. Cute boys—Willie, Gordon, ‘Lanky,’ and ‘Handsome.’ Danced every dance and met oodles of people.”

The creators of these curious objects were sometimes animated by a nostalgia for the days before Gutenburg. A late Victorian rendering of a poem by Tennyson is filled with elaborate initials and borders that salute the manuscript makers of the Middle Ages. The curling tendrils, the leaves with their sharp, spade-like triangular forms, the stark juxtapositions of orange and blue or red and green—all of this suggests a close study of fifteenth-century manuscript painting. A mid-nineteenth-century Italian collection of rebuses is at once graceful and goofy. I love the witty little figures, ranging from schematic to caricatural, and the playful juxtaposition of various typographic conventions. The creator of this small, oblong volume has a hell-bent, impish style, prefiguring the work of such mid-twentieth-century illustrators as Bruno Munari and Joseph Low. There are odd twists and turns and echoes in these volumes, as when a seventeenth-century document from the King of Spain is drawn in such a way as to imitate the look of engraving. In many cases these are very much objects for personal use, recipe books of one kind or another, albums in which a person records private impressions or professional secrets. An early-eighteenth-century manuscript by Johannes Dicel, a German wonder doctor, contains directions for the preparation of medicinal herbs, a process to preserve ginger, remedies for the plague, and a treatise on bees. Dicel includes his own drawings, many of birds; they are beguilingly bold, with lucid outlines and areas of rich, unshaded color. Turning over the pages of Dicel’s herbal, you feel how much the man loved this volume, how he must have lingered over these pages in which he gathered together all the tricks of his trade. This compact, pleasingly roughhewn book exudes a powerful aura, evoking the enigmas of alchemy, the seductions of a wizard.

Certain volumes are not so much finished products as means to an end, for the authors surely hoped that what had at first been made by hand would eventually make its way through the printing press. Perhaps this was the case with Dicel’s herbal, although it is also easy to imagine that the doctor would not have let these recipes out of his sight, and regarded this as the most personal of compendiums, to be added to and revised in the privacy of his study. There are many sorts of handmade volumes that by their very nature grow organically, their shifting shapes mirroring changing experiences and even the varying perspectives of the human mind. There are the bound books that artists fill with drawings, represented here by a graffiti artist’s notebook from the 1980s. Ledger books of various sorts can fall into this broadly conceived collection as well, and here indeed is the guest book from a hotel in Cheltenham, where the Beatles stayed in 1963. Diaries, journals, notebooks, account books are all part of the story. An especially engaging reflection of popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s is the archive of a manufacturer of precision metal pressings in Birmingham, England, the big scrapbook chock-full of designs for enameled badges, buttons, and medallions, documented in hand-colored photographs and drawings. This nifty volume is unselfconscious Pop Art; that’s the best kind. And then there is the Mr. Weston who, in the late 1880s, created a cycle of wonderfully succinct folk emblems that celebrate the Temperance Movement. I imagine Mr. Weston as a reformed alcoholic, now channeling all his energies into this work with pen and ink, the predominantly black-and-white compositions accented by rhetorical touches of red. In one picture of the Ship of Christ, a floating church sails through shark-infested waters; three well-fed fish are labeled “Dancing,” “Rum,” and “Cards,” while a fourth, which has succumbed to the evils of tobacco, sports a pipe in its mouth.

There is so much pleasure, both verbal and visual, reflected in these works, such an abundant sense of the excitement of making something delightful with one’s own hands. And from time to time the excitement approaches exhilaration, and we are in the presence of a work that is a masterpiece of some sort, although of what sort it is not easy to say. I am thinking in particular of an enormous folio volume devoted to facsimiles of the signatures and monograms of European painters, assembled by one D. Durksen in the Netherlands around 1869. This handmade catalogue, its neatly composed pages packed with signatures and monograms rendered in black, brown, gray, and ochre paint, is a work of astonishing elegance, an elegance so exacting as to suggest the subtly daring juxtapositions of color and texture and shape in Georges Braque’s paintings. The signatures, reproduced in a variety of sizes, give the pages an animation and variety that confounds the idea of a catalogue or a list. There’s a loving, playfully romantic spirit to this intricately designed volume. Some signatures are rendered in light colors on dark-toned rectangles, as if to suggest plaques on which a name has been emblazoned or engraved; at times the lettering is accented with bits of a second color, to give it a witty dimensionality. There are passages of amusing trompe l’oeil. In order to show how a particular artist’s signature or monogram looks on a piece of wood, the author first paints a bit of faux wood grain (one of Braque’s specialties), or even a piece of wood with splintery edges. A bold monogram will be juxtaposed with a tiny signature; once, the entire big page is filled with a single name. The volume is an essay in the varieties of autographic expression, an idiosyncratic ordering of human particularities, as mesmerizing in its way as one of Joseph Cornell’s salutes to the achievements of the Old Masters.

Looking through these books, I am held by their range and variety, but also by some underlying unity. The urge to compile, to construct, to compose animates the American girl’s summer camp diary as well as the magnificent Dutch gathering of artists’ signatures and the delightful nineteenth-century Italian Collezione di Rebus. When I consider the books gathered together here as a totality, I find that what I am confronting is a story of the survival of the pre-Gutenberg vision of the book deep into the post-Gutenberg age.

But Gutenberg and the development of the printing press in the West, while critical, are not the only developments that must be taken into account. As the volumes gathered here make abundantly clear, the relationship between the handmade book and the printed book has been different not only in different times but in different places. In parts of Asia and Africa the fabrication of books without the aid of mechanical reproduction may have remained widespread for years and even centuries after such traditions were pushed to the margins in the West. A world history of the handmade book would trace not only the forward march of technology, but also the relative strength of traditions of penmanship and calligraphy in different parts of the globe, and the extent to which making books by hand has been an aristocratic or a popular tradition in different times and places, an expression of particular religious or artistic beliefs, a philosophic choice or a pragmatic decision. The handmade book can be high or low, the finest flower of an elite culture or a rough-and-ready product of the workaday world. As examples gathered here from Burma, Japan, China, and many other points of the compass make abundantly clear, there is also nothing inevitable about the idea of a book as consisting of sheets of paper bound together on one side. There are accordion albums. There are sheets of bark or leaf attached by cord. And a handwritten scroll, the Torah, is still at the very center of Jewish life. There are surely many reasons for the insistence, among observant Jews, that for certain purposes sacred texts must be written by hand. Judaism offers a rare—indeed perhaps an unparalleled—communal commitment to the continuing existence of the handmade book. And there is something altogether striking, when considered in the Western tradition, about this assertion by the People of the Book that the origins of the book in the work of the scribe must not be forgotten.

The truth is that there has never been an end to the handmade book, to the book as something made without the aid of the printing press, sometimes at home or close to home, sometimes for purely private pleasure. And this realization, in turn, provokes some wider thoughts about the nature of the book and, perhaps, the future of the book. True, much of what we are seeing here are exceptions to the rule—curiosities, unique cases. Some of them may by judged not books at all, at least not in the sense of a volume that is meant to convey information to others. But even if we grant that many are exceptional works, they nevertheless affect our more general sense of the history of the book, making that history appear less linear, less a simple matter of cause and effect than is generally believed. Technological development is not all about falling dominoes, at least not in the sense that one innovation invariably renders the know-how of an earlier period obsolete. These books were inspired by obligations, interests, and passions that confound any predictable technological pattern. I am reminded that sometimes an older technology is more appropriate to the task at hand, or simply more convenient. Each volume is a particular case, and yet when taken together they suggest the scope of our love affair with the book, for many of those who feel compelled to make a book of their own must surely have begun by loving the books they found in bookstores and libraries and on the shelves of their families and friends.

The heterogeneity of this group of books defies categorization. In exploring such material, we are moving through less traveled territory, at least so far as the rare book trade is concerned. These treasures might as easily be found in an antique store as in a bookstore. Some of them look like extraordinary flea market finds. They make a mockery of the collector’s concern with the perfect copy of the most desirable book, the first edition with all the proper markings, the immaculate dust jacket, the autograph dedication from the author to his famous friend. We are involved with an entirely different kind of connoisseurship. While some are representative of a certain class of book—the diary, the friendship album, the sketchbook, the commonplace book, the recipe book, the scrapbook—the examples are often so distinctive as to demand to be judged on their own merits, sui generis. These volumes suggest a radical, avant-gardist aspect of book collecting—each book as a thing unto itself, with its singular story, a life of its own. How do we judge them? What criteria do we use? The volume that strikes one person as deliciously strange can be dismissed by another person as merely odd. To appreciate such curious works you must give yourself over to a spirit of suggestibility—you must be prepared for echoes and undercurrents and unexpected affinities.

What we have here is a counter-history of the book in the modern world, a history at the margins that comments on and sometimes even parodies the official history. I imagine Borges would have been delighted. The man who copied Chateaubriand’s Les Martyrs in an immaculate hand, or the prisoner who, in 1810, copied a grammatical dictionary, translating English terms into French, offer a doubling of normative publishing practices, they seek to make by hand what otherwise might be produced by machine. There is an element of trompe l’oeil or sleight-of-hand about some of these volumes, in which an individual attempts to match the refined pictorial effects of a mezzotint or a lithograph or the immaculate typographical effects produced by the nineteenth-century printing press. One might argue, in fact, that in each century the handmade book is a funhouse mirror reflecting the mechanically made book. If there is a dissident element about some of these creations—a sense that somebody is saying, “Damn the world, I’ll make it myself”—this can be expressed through the subtlest attempt to match the effects of mechanized production, or through a blithe indifference to standard publishing practices. And if, in the nineteenth century, there were people who in effect were saying, “Damn the printing press,” who is to say that there will not be, in the twenty-first century, people who say, “Damn the e-book?”

I believe it is particularly interesting to contemplate this creative cacophony at a time when we are being told, over and over again, that all books will soon be obsolete, victims of the computer and the Internet. The place of the book in our culture, although it will surely be altered in some ways by the advent of the e-book, may not change as completely as some are inclined to imagine. I would make a counter-argument. Technology, while surely affecting consciousness, never entirely transforms consciousness. Indeed, new technology can as easily reinforce our attachment to older forms of thinking and feeling. It is too simple to conclude that in the age of the computer people are, if not reading less, than certainly less inclined to read a book. In the nineteenth century there were still people who wanted to create illuminated manuscripts, although what were commonly said to be the glory days of the illuminated manuscript were already long past. And I surmise that in the twenty-second century there will still be people who want to curl up in bed with a pile of printed pages contained between two covers. Perhaps the radical shifts in information technology that we are experiencing will spur fresh interest in the examples gathered here, which represent earlier technologies or dissident technologies or what might even be called anti-technologies.

In his essay on book collecting, “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin quotes the Latin saying, “habent sua fata libelli,” and observes that for the collector, “not only books but also copies of books have their fates.” Nothing could be more striking than the fates of the books collected in the following pages. The creators of these volumes have attempted, by writing and drawing and cutting and pasting and painting and collaging, to inscribe their own interests and avidities—and, sometimes, their own lives—into the world’s library. Considered one by one, many of the men and women who embarked on these projects appear to have been perfectly reasonable and even unexceptional characters. But taken together, they can look surprisingly heroic. I wonder what their reactions would be, all these years later, on seeing their handiwork examined by unfamiliar eyes. Would Malinda Wells blush to know that others are reading her girlish diaries? Would Johannes Dicel prefer that his medicinal recipes remain a secret? Surely they would have a range of responses, including embarrassment and incredulity. But I am convinced that many of these singular men and women would be delighted to know that their labors of love were being loved again.

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