I consider myself a serious reader, and have read most of the landmark volumes of world literature and philosophy. Like most of my generation, however, I have been a victim of the paperback revolution. Since most of what I have read are paperback versions, I have had little exposure to books as objects d'art. I have taken books for granted, evaluating them solely on their verbal and/or visual content, only occasionally taking note of any other aspect of their design, materials, or production. This began to change one summer session when I was a physics undergraduate. Bored (or perhaps overly challenged) with the tedium of electromagnetic theory, I amused myself by reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The lengthy novel overtook my life, and soon I was skipping classes to stay in my dormitory and read. The books themselves were from a limited edition of small volumes published in 1894 by G. Barrie in Philadelphia, containing many fine hand-pulled etchings tipped into the volumes at frequent intervals. I became so diverted from physics that I abandoned LeGendre's polynomial, the equation explaining an electrical charge on a sphere, in favor of Jean Valjean and his beloved Cosette, Inspector Javert, and most intriguing to me, the old revolutionary, G----. That summer I flunked out of physics and changed my major to English. I began to seek out hardbound books, spurning paperbacks whenever I had the option.
My love affair with books began in earnest. but I was still not a very savvy critic. I loved the feel of a good book, the heft of a thick volume in my hand, the feel of good paper, the way the pages turned. I hardly noticed the details of book manufacture. I admired marbled endpapers, but didn't ask questions about their production, and had no sense that they were made by craftsmen. I never connected the stitches with a human hand pulling a needle through the paper, and presumed that task had been entirely mechanical.
When I became a printmaker, I started to pay more attention to illustrations as an integral part of book content. I purchased illustrated hardbound books when I could afford them, but still considered books a manufactured object rather than a fine art production. That changed when I began to study bookbinding. At first we constructed books without content as straightforward structures. Soon, however, I began to realized that a book could be constructed entirely by hand from its raw materials: bookboard, thread, cloth, paper, glue. New horizons of creative possibilities opened up to me.
A Guide to the Arabic Alphabet
A Pilgrimage to Melville's Manhattan
Two in Arcadia