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Monday, March 5, 2018

Towards a Book Review: MEETING BY ACCIDENT

Some readers of “Books in Northport” may recall my review of Julia Miler’s Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings, published in 2010, a book as beautiful and important as its subject, thrilling to hold and read and feast upon with eyes and mind. What more could a bibliophile ask? The answer is, of course, another Julia Miller book, and we have that now with the 2018 publication of Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings, a continued exploration of the subject introduced to us in Books Will Speak Plain

The title of Miller’s new book is taken from Emily Dickinson —

Meeting by Accident,we hovered by design.

— and every bibliophile will understand the attraction of those lines and their meaning for the author as she explains it in her preface.

These first two lines sum up, for me, the exact experience I have had so often, finding interesting books mostly by accident and the examination and research (the hovering) that follows.

Miller’s examination and research is guided by a lifetime of expert and intimate knowledge of her subject that few possess, but all who love books have experienced serendipitous findings and subsequent, loving “hovering.”

Meeting by Accident is a book the author did not expect to write. She felt that she had done her work in Books Will Speak Plain and laid groundwork there for future researchers. That first book, though highly technical, was a general introduction to her topic, however, and Miller found herself with much more to say about specific types of historical bindings of particular interest to her. Only someone with knowledge and expertise comparable to hers could do justice to either work, and clearly I am light years away from such ability. My only “qualifications,” if I can even dignify them with the term, for daring to bring this book to your attention are my own general and deep love of books and the honor of annual visits to my northern Michigan bookshop by the author. Also, if you did not learn of Meeting by Accident from “Books in Northport,” you might not have the happy accident of encountering the book at all, and I cannot take that chance.

Meeting by Accident, at least for the non-expert, is a book best appreciated by savoring its content in brief, intense sessions — “brief,” because the amount of information on any single page can be overwhelming and takes time to absorb; “intense,” because I cannot imagine a bibliophile for whom the reading of this book, turning the lovely, smooth, acid-free pages, and dwelling on the beautifully reproduced illustrations could be otherwise than intense. My words are not to be taken as warning, however, merely as advice, which is merely to say that Meeting by Accident is a work to be studied, not skimmed. It is also, I note, written with a clarity that will reward any reader who cares enough to take time with it. 

Time, not surprisingly, is a recurring theme for Julia Miller as she studies historical bindings. She notes in her introduction that
…the book has been a sort of material storage unit through the age … [and] fragmented books have served in turn by being used to complete a less damaged or more important copy. Sometimes text material was used to line covers, or spines, or laminated boards….
My own non-expert “meeting by accident” with such an old book, parts of it built up from bits of an earlier and completely unrelated volume, opened my eyes to the mongrel history a single physical book might possess. As when one stumbles upon an old, partially obliterated two-track road deep in the woods, the non-expert inspecting a thrillingly old book is led on by questions, guesses, surmises, while a scholar such as Julia Miller is led by deep knowledge to her further informed investigations. Her researches are our good fortune. 

In Meeting by Accident, Miller pursues five specific kinds of historical bindings that she finds particularly interesting: bindings decorated by staining; canvas bindings; over covers; books for scholars; and wrapping up with a special report, co-authored with Pamela Spitzmuller, on the Nag Hammadi Codices. I will say only a bit about the chapter on overcovers, since, as a bookseller, I have daily contact and close acquaintance with their modern descendants. Miller herself notes this relationship over time: 
Our protective enclosures also echo practices of the past when we add some sort of jacket to a book that has sustained cover and/or structural damage, or simply to protect a primary (initial) cover from further wear. 
Collectors of modern first editions will recognize themselves here. “Protecting adds value,” Miller writes in a footnote, “and to a degree, restores value….”

In previous centuries, an overcover (and these took various forms described in Miller’s survey) might be an entire second binding over the first, but often the protective second covering took somewhat crude form, its purpose purely practical (that of holding together a book that would otherwise be in danger of falling apart) and its application undertaken by an owner rather than a professional bookbinder. These protective additions evidence the value placed on the objects — and probably also explain the intrigue overcovers hold for me personally.

Miller’s sixth and final chapter in Meeting by Accident is a collection of images and descriptions of models she herself has made in imitation of historical bookbinding examples. Readers experienced in the practice of bookbinding will be inspired by this chapter. Most of the author’s models illustrated are now housed in the Special Collections section of the University of Michigan library under the name The Julia Miller Collection of Bookbinding Models (JMCBM), which reminds me to note that Miller’s extensive collection of historical bindings used to illustrate Books Will Speak Plain is now also part of the UM library’s Special Collections as The Julia Miller Collection of Historical Bindings (JMCHB). 

It will surprise no bibliophile to learn that Miller has already begun a new private collection. Those of us who love books love reading, yes, and love literature, but we also love owning and handling these material objects so evocative of other human lives and work.

Obviously, I have but lightly touched the surface of the wealth presented in this new book, hardly given a complete “review,” but I hope I have said enough to indicate the treasure given us by Julia Miller’s continued scholarly work. 

Meeting by Accident: Selected Historical Bindings
by Julia Miller
Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2018
Hardcover, 696pp., illus., index

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