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The earliest books were written on scrolls. This had many disadvantages, not least that it was impossible to find a particular place in a hurry. The apparently obvious idea of writing on separate sheets and stitching them together between covers, does not seem to have occurred to anyone until after the birth of Christ. The new form was called a codex and the earliest known codices were versions of the gospels, written in Egypt in the first six centuries AD.
Almost at once people began to decorate the covers. Wood and animal skins were the main materials for early bindings. Wood was often set with precious stones, to reflect the value placed on the text, which was usually sacred. Leather was either pierced or 'blind tooled' - it had a design stamped on it - but it was not gilded or coloured. This technique has hardly changed today.
It was in 1966, when the Italian city of Florence was hit by a disastrous flood, that, paradoxically, the fortunes of the declining craft of bookbinding took a turn for the better.
In the long and painstaking process of salvaging and restoring the books damaged by the flood, old techniques were rediscovered and a wave of new interest began among young professional binders. Today, the craft is flourishing with a wide range of styles from the traditional gilt tooled volume to the modern book artists work, which develops binding into sculpture.
Perhaps most encouraging, in terms of ecology and expanse, for anyone thinking of taking up the craft themselves, the distinction between mass produced and hand crafted bindings no longer revolves around the use of leather.
Experimental books are often most effective in more unusual (and cheaper) materials including paper, plastic or even plywood.
Now that books are no longer rare objects, the emphasis is on originality that can either complement a favourite text or, as printing and photocopying are now cheap, on a small scale, it is possible to write and bind your own book. A simple sewn book of blank pages with an attractive cover, can make a charming present.
Whatever approach is taken, the first thing to understand is the anatomy of the book. This is essential in order that the finished result is easy to hold and read and as long lasting as possible. The pages are folded and sewn in sections. The edge opposite the spine (the side of the book where the pages and covers join) is the 'fore edge' and the top and bottom the head and tail. The onside of the covers - back and front - is often decorated, traditionally with a marbled pattern. These inner covers are called endpapers. There is a wide range of beautiful ready printed paper for the amateur binder to buy.
The spine of the book is more complicated than it looks and its construction is crucial to the way the whole book works. It may have a decorative sewn border at the top, called the headband, and sometimes at the bottom, the tail band. As well as looking attractive, this border protects the part of the book where it is pulled as it is taken off the shelf.
Further down, a series of cords runs across the spine, round which the stitching is bound. Sometimes the cords are sunk into slots (kerfs) so that they lie level. In older styles of binding they are made into decorative bands by a process called 'nipping up', which involves pinching the cords, once they are covered with leather, between pliers, so that they stand proud of the spine.
A curved spine
Part of the binders skill lies in balancing the conflicting aims of binding a book tightly enough to last and loosely enough to open easily so you can read it.
After the sections have been sewn together, they are held in a frame to keep them aligned, and the spine makes a natural, but uneven bulge. This is hammered into an evenly convex shape - if it were pushed flat, then the middle edges would, in time, stick out at the font. The pages are then fixed between boards in a heavy iron press to flatten them before the covers are attached, and the book acquires its final character. In this the bookbinder can bring many skills to bear, drawing, painting or using collage or needlework as well as the traditional patterns of tooling and gilding on leather.
A Labour of love
Like much medieval art, the earliest books were produced in the monasteries. Monks who lovingly copied and illuminated manuscripts, then bound their precious masterpieces.
The lavishness of medieval bindings not only reflected the religious devotion of the monks, it was also an indication of the fact that books were difficult and laborious to produce and as a result were, in themselves, rare and precious objects. It was only in about 1450, when the German goldsmith, Johan Gutenberg, invented movable type and so made printing faster and easier, that it became feasible for books to be produced in any quantity.
This had an immediate effect on bindings, which became more diverse and were for the first time cheap enough for private people - albeit rich ones - to build libraries. Indeed many of the famous styles of binding take their names from the patrons who commissioned them. Probably the best known was Jean Grolier, the Treasurer General of France from 1547 - 65. The term 'Grolier' refers to the designs he favoured. He was also responsible for having the titles of books written on the spine. Previously it had been written across the front edges of the pages. It is still possible to visit libraries with old books in which pre-Grolier volumes are shelved, as it seems to us, back to front.
Forwarding and Finishing
As books were produced in greater quantities the craft of binding passed beyond the monasteries and was divided into two parts. 'forwarding' and 'finishing'. Forwarding is the making up of the basic book, while finishing is the decorating of the spine and cover. Different craftsmen usually carried out the two stages as the specialized techniques for finishing grew ever more elaborate.
Nowadays bookbinders may carry out all the stages themselves, depending on whether they favour the English or French approach.
The French, who have been acknowledged for centuries as the leaders in binding, work on the studio, or atelier principle, in which a master designer delegates the earlier stages of production.
The English style, pioneered by William Morris and Thomas Cobden-Sanderson in the last century, favours the idea of the 'whole book', in which a consistency of style and workmanship is achieved by allowing one person to carry out each stage.
Glue and cloth
Morris was reacting against the mechanization of printing which, in the 19th century, brought the first major changes to book design since the middle ages. Not only were books glued at the spine instead of being shown, but for the first time, cloth was being used instead of leather for the covers.
This meant that books could be made more cheaply, so they were more plentiful, but it also meant that they were less well made. It was the introduction of cloth and glue that brought about the modern distinction between 'fine' and cheaper 'trade' bindings.
Perhaps the saddest effect of mechanization on bookbinding was that so many techniques almost died out until they were rescued by the sixties revival.
Today the craft is booming, with more and more people discovering the scope and diversity of bookbinding and enjoying its pleasures.
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