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An Excerpt from Books as History

Revised paperback edition

While most people think of books in terms of their contents or texts, Books as History: The Importance of Books Beyond Their Texts by David Pearson explains that books possess qualities beyond their texts. He shows how books can be seen as designed or artistic objects.  In this excerpt, Pearson discusses how bookbindings have developed and changed over the years, while adding various levels of uniqueness to books.

Every binding tells a story, whether it is deluxe or humble. Binders offered their customers a choice, a spectrum of options from the simple to the elaborate, and the preferences they exercised can tell us something both about them and about their approach to the texts inside the books. These choices applied not only to external, decorative qualities but also to structural ones; there are various ways in which it is possible to cut corners in the sewing or other internal features of a handmade binding, leading to a cheaper but less hardwearing product. Early instructions from patrons to bookbinders are scarce, but where they do survive they often stress the importance of sturdy sewing and good quality handiwork rather than handsome tooling.

Fancy bindings reveal owners who could afford to pay that bit extra, or perhaps people who wished to display their wealth or status on their bookshelves; or they may be covering books which were regarded as particularly important. Simpler bindings can be equally revealing of personal histories; many of the books owned by John Donne, when he was a struggling and impoverished poet, are bound in parchment wrappers rather than leather, the cheap (or softback) option of the time. Books have often been bound and rebound, or repaired, more than once during their history and  those staging posts can indicate the changing regard for the texts inside. A book which has survived several centuries in pristine condition suggests a text which has not exactly been eagerly sought out. Many of the copies of Shakespeare’s 1623 First Folio now found in libraries around the world are in top quality nineteenth-century bindings, reflecting the veneration in which that book then came to be held; the few copies (of more than 200 surviving) which retain contemporary bindings are mostly very plain. A seventeenth-century devotional text is much more likely to be found in a fine binding of its period than a literary one, in line with the values of that time, although we now consider literature to be far more important than theology.

While wealthy book owners could afford to have their bindings finely decorated, the less well-to-do had to accept something plainer. This book was made in 1604 for Sir Charles Somerset

A binding will not only carry these messages which we can interpret, but also more immediate information about where and when it was made. A wall of leather-bound books may at first glance look pretty uniform but although the basic materials and construction methods of bookbindings remained substantially unchanged for many centuries, the decorative conventions underwent steady change from one generation to another, in line with the ever shifting more general currents of ornamental fashion. Just as sixteenth-century architecture or silverware are recognisably different from their eighteenth-century equivalents, so bookbindings are visually distinctive from one generation to another. This applies not only to handsomely decorated fine bindings, but also to much simpler ones; a sixpenny binding of 1600 is not the same as one of 1700, or even 1650. Unlike printers, bookbinders only rarely signed their work and we cannot often identify individual craftsmen; they worked within the stylistic conventions of their day and neither the binders, nor their customers, looked for individuality of design. What we can do, however, is place a particular binding within its time and place – we can recognise that it is English, or German, or French, and approximately when it was made – and also say whereabouts, within the range of options of its time, it sits.

Learn even more about this book and hear a panel discussion on “Collecting the Physical Book in a Digital Age,” at the Grolier Club on April 5 from 4-7pm. Bob Fleck will be giving a presentation that includes references to Books as History, while other speakers including Gary L. Strong and David Rose also share their opinions. The discussion will be moderated by Susan M. Allen. Click here for more information on the event and click here for more information on Books as History. The revised, paperback edition will be available in May.

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