Book Arts Website of the Month

In Guerilla Bookmaking, Edward H. Hutchins lays out a plan for libraries to become a focal point for preserving and presenting information via handmade books.



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For the Love of Books

For the Love of Books is a monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. This Month: A Book of Our Own--What is it about making our own books that is so engaging?
Instinctively we all know how to make a book. Anyone who works with children sees that. And while adults are reluctant to show themselves in any light save that of competence, most quickly grasp that they do not need the verbal sensitivity of a poet or the visual skills of an artist to produce a book.

Florida artist Mary Segal encourages students in her bookmaking class to transform books that already exist-blank books, notebooks, sketchbooks, printed books, even catalogues or calendars-into a unique carrier for their own material. While many of the students in Segal's class consider themselves neither artist nor writer, they can readily identify themselves as collectors. After seeing a few examples of handmade books, they become attuned to objects and materials, collecting them and developing an organizing principle based on the book form.

Once you decide to make a book-instead of a painting or a sculpture or a poem-the book form imposes its own layer of meaning on the content and material. The collection of material that will form the book arranges itself around the idea of the book: embracing some items, highlighting what is missing, and rejecting others.

Linda Badgley-Smith, a jewelry artist who uses bookmaking when she teaches children, describes a handmade book as "a container-you put stuff in it. Binding precious 'stuff' into a book elevates its status, giving it a place of honor."

The form of a handmade book is infinitely malleable. There's the traditional codex, but there are also dos-a-dos books, tunnel books, popup books. There are books with triangular pages and trapezoids and circles.

Two characteristics that I consider essential to a book are multiple planes and materiality. That's why I maintain that pages collected in a three-ring binder (or other types of business bindings available at Office Depot) are merely that, a collection of pages. They haven't yet transformed into the book form.

But when the bookmaker begins to consider the tactility of handling the book, the sequence in which the turned pages reveal content and meaning, then the transformation begins.

Books by their nature lend themselves to multiple copies and, of course, a great industry has evolved to produce these multiples quickly and inexpensively. Edward Hutchins, a New York State book artist, is a great proponent of creating small editions of books by hand. "We want a book that is so representative of our talents and abilities that not only is it not mass-produced, but it couldn't be mass-produced."

I enjoy making multiples because I like sorting out production issues. Others prefer putting all their effort into a one-of-a-kind work. Some create a one-of-a-kind book, then make facsimiles by color copying it.

Although the finished book does have a linear aspect to it, the process of creating a book can begin at any point. Those of us who grant words a privileged status over images believe that we must have a text before we can create a book. How liberating it has been to discover that I can just as easily start with a particular format, then fashion or find a text to fit it. Or I can start with a collection of images or objects that appeals to me and work out the format in which to contain it.

Sharon Morgan, a Florida artist and teacher, says one of her favorite books is made of window screens, duct tape, and nails. "I love to go to Home Depot," she says. So these leftovers from numerous trips and endless household projects were turned into a book about the delights of wandering hardware aisles. "First I have an idea and the book happens," says Morgan. "Then what I have to say emerges through the book's form."

Unlike manufactured books, or even those bound traditionally at an office supply store, handmade books invite the bookmaker to keep working it. Morgan considers her books a work in progress till she gives them away. Badgley-Smith feels the same way and encourages her students to keep working their books, adding to them, changing them, manipulating the materials. "The handmade book is a great way to focus on process rather than race toward a final, fixed product," Smith says.

Making a book by hand is also a way to disengage from our habitual way of thinking. Suzanne Fox, author of numerous books, including Home Life, has recently begun "playing" with bookmaking. "The pleasure of making books as opposed to writing books, for me, is the escape from the linearity and logic of text. My writing is not experimental; it must "make sense" to a reader. When I work with books forms I have no such limitation. I'm working on a book now that collages together maps, mathematics flashcards, and pages from an old calendar, among other things. I could probably explain why I chose these elements-they all have to do with the ordering of things, for example-but I didn't have to make that rational connection as I selected them. The choices were deeply intuitive. These books do not need to have an easily definable subject or a denotative meaning. No one, including me, need ever comment, 'The introduction is too slow' or 'What was her motivation for that?' or 'That metaphor confuses me.' Without the constrictions of making logical sense, I feel a great sense of freedom."

Despite the growth of the Internet and other convergent media, the book remains a powerful totem in our society. Through it the words, thoughts, expressions of another are made manifest and permanent, extending across time and space.

By making a book of our own-by hand-we take back some of that totemic power that has been given over to electronic technology.

C. J. Metschke is a Florida-based writer who studies and experiments with artist books. Contact her by email.