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Sunday, October 30, 2011

More on Books as Objects—and One Important Book on the Subject

. . .The book as artifact occupies the most tenuous and complex position, perhaps, of all the items made by the human hand: it is at once treasured and cavalierly interfered with on a whim.

- Julia Miller, Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings (Legacy Press, 2010)

In my line of work, I have opportunities to become acquainted with experts in many fascinating fields, including (but not limited to) agricultural methods and practice, legal precedent and case study, medical research, natural science—and, of course, books. When it comes to the history of bookbinding, its materials and techniques, I am fortunate to count among my annual bookstore visitors and customers Julia Miller of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan Library. Julia has been coming to vacation in the Northport area for years and once included a volume she purchased from Dog Ears Books in an exhibition (she was the curator) called “Suave Mechanicals: Early to Modern Binding Styles.” But it has been only since the publication of her Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings, published by Legacy Press in 2010, that I am beginning to have a glimmering of the depth and breadth of Julia’s expertise.

Books Will Speak Plain [hereafter referred to as BWSP] is a treasure trove. It is, moreover, while perfectly contemporary, itself an example of a book as a beautiful object, the object as exquisite as the text. But before getting into the book itself, I want to linger on the dust jacket and what it teaches me about the book’s author. Let me quote a few lines:
Julia Miller has worked in the book conservation field for thirty years. She . . . joined the staff of the Conservation and Book Repair Unit at the University of Michigan Library, spending ten years there. Over the past decade, she has been researching the history of binding structure and style, and in 2008 to prepare the manuscript for this book, she was awarded the prestigious Samuel H. Kress Conservation Publication Fellowship, administered through the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation.

. . .In 2009, she was invited to join the team that conducted the conservation survey of the manuscripts in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt. In the fall of 2010, she was a research fellow at The Library Company in Philadelphia, where she studied bindings in that collection as part of a project to develop a typology for American scaleboard bindings.

The publisher’s introduction is not the way I came to know Julia. Our conversations in my bookstore over the years have been much more casual. And as is true of so many experts, particularly women, she does not enter a room trumpeting her expertise and knowledge. Now, with her book in hand, I can appreciate much more fully her appreciation of my bookstore: I am thrilled that she occasionally finds objects on my shelves that she “must have” for her private collection!

Someone recently wrote to me that she was trying to look at the world through my eyes. Well, whenever I have spent time with BWSP, I find myself looking at old books with new eyes, paying much more attention to physical details. This, for me, is the gift BWSP brings. I will never have the patience or devotion to become expert myself in historical bindings, but even glimpses into the field deepen and enrich my feeling for these beloved objects of mine.

Part of Dr. Miller’s motivation in writing BWSP was to make up, for others in the field, for the lack of training she herself had when starting out, and so the first four chapters detail the history of the handmade codex up to 1900, with Chapter 5 “identifying Binding Materials and Application.” When and why the codex became preeminent over earlier roll manuscripts sets the stage for the history that follows:
. . .Theories have been advanced that the early Christians made a conscious decision to use the codex to differentiate themselves from the pagan tradition of papyrus roll and wooden tablet, or that the early Christians realized it was cheaper to write on both sides of the papyrus or parchment. . . .

What we know simply as a book was a technological advancement when it first appeared—as Miller notes, easier to use, easier to store, and more easily referenced than its technological predecessors. Materials used for text pages and for binding, as well as binding methods, have undergone many changes in the complex history of the codex, but the basic form of the book has been remarkable for its longevity. BWSP is richly illustrated throughout, both with photographs and drawings. Chapter 5 in particular presents a rich section of color plates.

Chapter 6 introduces the author’s second motivation in writing this book. The chapter title is “Describing Historical Bindings—a Template for Action.” Miller recommends that collection surveys be undertaken with a well-designed survey form, “patience, careful eyes, gentle handling, knowledge. . ., understanding,” and “visual aids.” She believes that special collections should be catalogued with detailed physical descriptions as well as content descriptions, since the physical book carries its history with it, and there is no guarantee that this history will be preserved unless attention is brought to bear on it. Photography, Miller explains, is no substitute for detailed description, and the best description is safest when accompanied by detailed drawings, documenting book structure and the way its elements work together.
. . .Photographing historical bindings reassures us, but only a thorough look at the item can reveal many of its secrets, and even the most clearly written description will lose its application as it is read by different people with different training backgrounds at different time periods.

Books Will Speak Plain is a unique, invaluable and indispensable reference work for anyone who cares about historic bookbinding. It brings together historic and conservation information not previously available in a single volume. Appended materials include sample survey suggestions and description case studies; assessment guidelines; an excellent glossary; bibiography; and index.

The author’s impassioned plea for description and preservation of historic bindings will surely find an attentive audience among readers of the work. Finally, as I mentioned near the beginning of this post, it’s a beautiful book. I cannot spend more than half an hour at a time with it, or I grow dangerously overexcited.


Gerry said...

Books have been objects of veneration, objects of deep suspicion, tools, playthings, works of art. If, a thousand years from now, there are no books as we understand them, I wonder what humans will make of their traces in whatever constitutes the historical record?

P. J. Grath said...

Imagine that there are no more artificial light sources and an ancient book is found. Imagine there are no more computers or e-readers and a box of DVDs is found. A thousand years from now? I hope there will still be trees and fresh water and frogs, birds, foxes and such.