Saturday, January 14, 2012

Postscript to The Bonefolder

In the days since the last issue of The Bonefolder, Vol 8, 2012, many readers have shared their thoughts and regrets on Book_Arts-L, Facebook, Twitter, and their blogs. Please know that this was a very difficult decision, one not made lightly.

Gary Frost wrote in the January 13th post of his Futureofthebook blog:
"We now have the last issue of Bonefolder and it is a wonderful example of the series. This journal has provided an Ellis island of all the cultures that would make-up a nation. The relations of the diversity of features would still be difficult to chart as it required the whole sequence even to appreciate their scope. It is larger than book arts. The scope is closer to the qualities of physical books as depicted on-line.
Qualities of physical books depicted on-line is some kind of editorial paradox but the staff and Peter grappled directly with the challenges. The clean design and attractive two-column layout provided the perfect, conflicted, visual experience. We can also be appreciative of the energy and production of the authors.
Bonefolder is in the league of Fine Print and BookWays but it also enlarged the legacy. Now the momentum is handed off to the forthcoming journal of the Collegiate Book Arts Association. That larger organization will probably take more possession of its journal. Perhaps it will wish to take possession of the discipline of artists’ use of book formats. PDF?"
A day later Betty Bright wrote on Book_Arts-L:
"Let me add my congratulations to Peter and his able collaborators who have brought us Bonefolder since 2004. When writing or speaking about the history of our field, I always note Peter's key role in launching this listserv in 1994, followed by our first online journal in 2004. It isn't just that Bonefolder added a well-edited voice to the field, it's that Peter demonstrated how to do it, and how to do it in an elegant design and with an even-handed editorial voice that will inspire others to step up. With its free residence on the Internet, we have grown used to the amazing fact that each edition appears simultaneously everywhere and open to everyone. That is powerful work for the greater good. Peter and his collaborators have set a high bar, but we wouldn't want it any other way.
Vision and action, much energy and a quality product, that's service to the field of a high order. We owe you much, Peter and colleagues, and I know that Bonefolder will continue to inform us as we move forward and refer back to articles, reviews and interviews that have filled its pages.
Kudos all around, Betty"
To both (and all others out there), thank you for your thoughts regarding The Bonefolder and kudos to Gary for recognizing the conflicted nature of the publication, that of describing the physical book in a very disembodied way online.

As to the future. I very much hope that something else comes along that will build upon The Bonefolder and (hopefully) take the idea in other as of yet undiscovered or unimagined directions. When we started 8 years ago, the very idea of open access was still relatively new and discussion mostly limited to the academy and scholarly publishing circles. Those journals in the book arts that existed were print only and either restricted to the membership of the organizations that sponsored them, or available for subscription at cost as in the case of the Journal of Artist's Books. Lest we be seen as skinflints out for a free ride, all those working on The Bonefolder were (and still are) members of many of these organizations and/or subscribers, and are not opposed to paying for these.

However we were also very attracted to the idea of a freely accessible online journal with universal access to all classes of readers. Since we started,  some centers and organizations have started online journals, but none open access - The Bonefolder remained the only one of its kind.

Another unique aspect of The Bonefolder was to actively engage with our readers through our Bind-O-Rama. These showcased techniques or other aspects of our publication and invited exploration, the results being shown in the following issue and online. While The Bonefolder may be no more, the Bind-O-Rama will continue on as a part of the Book Arts Web. I'll announce the theme later this spring, but expect something traditional and codex-like...

However, to Gary's point about College Book Arts Association (CBAA) or other fine organizations with membership oriented publications filling this void, I don't see that happening. What set the Bonefolder apart was that from the outset it was designed to be open access and freely available to any and all online. It was the online only nature that allowed us to reach the audience we did with over 250,000 downloads over our 8 years, and a presence in just about every library's catalog through our participation in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). I may be a librarian/geek in this respect, but the results speak for themselves and will ensure that The Bonefolder remains available beyond us thanks to participation in digital preservation initiatives such as LOCKSS.

Membership publications are highly unlikely to provide this level of access for obvious reasons that have to do with their being benefits of membership. While the support of an organization can have sustaining benefits for a publication (and I agree with Gary on this point), it can also restrict activities and responsiveness due to organizational structure and bureaucracy that ultimately make it difficult to respond to paradigm shifts, especially in fields as traditional as the book arts. Looking at the online presence of most membership organizations (not just in the book arts) does not encourage me with lackluster results in keeping things up-to-date much less actively promoting the organization and its activities. I see this on Book_Arts-L, after 18 years still the most active list by far (someone please create the next great thing to replace it so I can retire ;-) ) and elsewhere online. Doing this work I get how ongoing care and feeding can fall off the radar, it is hard work and and never ends, but it is essential for growing and maintaining ones audience.

I'd love to be wrong about all this and challenge any of the membership organizations, or a dedicated and diverse group of individuals to take up the challenge of a serious open access publication in this discipline. To those energetic enough to try to create their own open access I am happy to share of our experiences.

The past 8 years have been amazing and we are thankful for the terrific support we have had from our readers and authors with whom we would have achieved nothing.


Peter




Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Bonefolder — Volume 8, 2012

Publisher’s Note

On January 13 we release Volume 8, 2012, the largest (and regrettably last) issue of The Bonefolder. What started as an experiment in open-access online-only publishing “way back” in 2004 grew into perhaps the most widely read publication in the book arts with over a quarter million downloads for all issues combined since we began with a global readership. Listing of the The Bonefolder in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) placed us in just about every research library’s online catalog, and participation in LOCKSS will ensure long-term access to all issues (as do  Syracuse University Library’s and the Internet Archive’s servers). This growth, however, also brought with it ever increasing workloads for the small and incredibly dedicated editorial staff who solicited articles, worked with authors, and much more. With the 2011 issue we switched to an annual format (something catalogers curse publishers for) in the hopes that it would allow us to streamline processes and spread the work out as it came in. Alas, that did not happen in the way we had hoped and the process became unsustainable… When we began we knew it would be a challenge, albeit a fun one inspired by other independent publications such as Fine Print and Bookways, but also membership publications such as The New Bookbinder and The Guild of Book Workers Journal.  Since we started other publications in the book arts other sprung up but ours remains the only freely accessible journal in the field. 

Looking back, I think we more than surpassed our initial goals, and while I have deep regrets about “closing the book” I feel it is far better to leave the field at the zenith when we all still have energy for other pursuits (that we all know will come) rather than forcing ourselves to continue. So, it is with an intense sense of pride that I thank all those who have worked to make this publication the success it became – Donia Conn who encouraged me to start things in 2004, Pamela Barrios, Chela Metzger and Don Rash who formed the original core, Karen Hanmer who soon joined the team, and finally Ann Carroll Kearney who was a very welcome addition with this issue.  To Samantha Quell, a long-time student of mine, our thanks for indexing our 14 issues thereby enhancing access. All of you contributed greatly to our success. Finally though, we would have not been able to exist at all if not for our authors, some established, some new, who filled our issues with articles that covered the full spectrum of the book arts.


To all thank you!





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Table of contents:

  • Publisher’s Note
  • Evolution of an Artist’s Book – Sarah Bryant
  • John DePol Digital Archive at The University of Alabama – Amanda Haldy, Sara Parkel, & Dan Albertson
  • Reinventing the Flag Book – Jeff Tong
  • Bookbinding in Estonia – Illu Erma, translated by Silja Oja
  • Modern Portuguese Bookbindings – Sam Ellenport
  • A Tale of Two Boards: A Study of A Bookbinding – Sidney F. Huttner
  • Book Conservation at West Dean College – Abigail Uhteg
  • “How Do I Make It Stick?” Adhesives For Use In Conservation and Book Arts – Tish Brewer
  • A Bookbinder’s Gamble – Gavin Dovey
  • Reliquary for a Book – Florian Wolper
  • Towards practice: The Art of Bookbinding Used to Instill Craft in Graphic Design – Law Alsobrook
  • Durante and Wallace-Crabbe: LIMES – Perle Besserman
  • Of the Bookbinder (London, 1761)
  • Bind-O-Rama 2011– Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet
  • Book Reviews
    • Abbott, Kathy. Bookbinding: A Step by Step Guide. Review by Anna Embree
    • Banik, Gerhard and Brückle, Irene. Paper and Water: A Guide for Conservators.
      Review by Abigail Uhteg
    • Marks, PJM. Beautiful Bookbindings, A Thousand Years of the Bookbinder’s Art. Review by Beth Doyle.
    • Miller, Julia. Books Will Speak Plain: A Handbook for Identifying and Describing Historical Bindings. Review by Chela Metzger
    • Minsky, Richard. The Book Art of Richard Minsky. Review by Miriam Schaer
    • Starling, Belinda. The Journal of Dora Damage. Review by John Nove
    • Wallace, Eileen. Masters: Book Arts. Review by Jules Siegel
The Bonefolder (online) ISSN 1555-6565

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Beautiful Bookbindings, A Thousand Years of the Bookbinder’s Art

PJM Marks. Beautiful Bookbindings, A Thousand Years of the Bookbinder’s Art. New Castle & London : Oak Knoll Press & The British Library 2011. ISBN 9781584562931. 190 pp. $49.95.

Reviewed by Beth Doyle

Beautiful Bookbindings is a collection of bindings selected by the staff of the British Library primarily to “please the eye.”[1] The introduction includes a brief history of the book, illustrations of book anatomy and explanations of the economic and design influences that changed the way books were made over the centuries. The bindings are presented chronologically in six chapters starting with pre-16th Century and continue through the 20th Century. Additionally there are several “special themes” that highlight furniture, embroidered bindings, painted edges, and other notable binding details.

The history of bookbinding is a vast and complicated one that spans the globe through many centuries. Beautiful Bookbindings focuses primarily on the Western tradition although the author does acknowledge, and the book briefly highlights, bindings from non-European geographies. There are prime examples of Persian lacquer bindings [2] , Indian pothi [3] , Chinese red lacquer bindings [4] , and traditional North African bindings [5] that give the reader at least a minimal understanding of what books from non-European countries might look like.

Each binding is accompanied by a short text describing what makes it special, how a specific binding was produced, or who may have commissioned or used such a book. It highlights well-known designers and artisans including William Morris [6] , Francis Sangorski [7] , Philip Smith [8] and Alice Morse [9] but also shows work from lesser-known binders. Many of the early bindings represented here are Christian texts and the author accurately describes the religious symbols found on the covers, something that is remarkably missed in many publications. But you would expect this level of breadth and accuracy from a British Library publication.

The bibliographic notes on each page are sparse, listing only the place of publication, size and a brief citation with more descriptive titles and footnotes listed by page number at the back of the book. Be sure to place a bookmark at the “Notes and Further Reading” section so you can flip back and forth to figure out exactly what you are looking at. It may also be helpful to have the British Library’s online catalog open if you are interested in finding additional bibliographic information.

When presenting artwork or fine craft it is important that the design and production aids the close study of the subject. Each binding in this book is expertly and beautifully photographed and presented in a way that you can clearly see very fine details. The explanatory text, however, is fairly small so grab your reading glasses if you want to do more than simply look at the pictures. The binding itself is made with a high quality paper and sewn, not adhesive bound, so it should hold up to many readings.

By the author’s own admission, beauty is an individual assessment, “but who can deny the visual and tactile appeal of a beautifully bound book?” [10] If you are interested in the history of the book, or if you simply love exquisitely made objects that are beautifully presented, you won’t be disappointed with this purchase.



Beth Doyle is the Head of Conservation Services Department at Duke University Libraries. She holds a B.A. in Photography from the University of Dayton, and an MLIS and Certificate of Advanced Study in Library and Archives Conservation from the University of Texas at Austin Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

[1] introduction (pg. 17)
[2] pg. 65
[3] pg. 23
[4] pg. 96
[5] pg. 24
[6] pg. 141
[7] pg. 154
[8] pg. 178
[9] pg. 144
[10] introduction (pg. 8)

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Welcome to the 2011 Bind-O-Rama

The Bonefolder's annual online exhibition.

Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet

We are pleased to present Artistically Reversible: Where Conservation and Art Meet, the 2011 Bonefolder Bind-O-Rama. This online exhibited was inspired by the tenets of the Tomorrow’s Past (TP) movement that seeks to provide antiquarian books with new, conservationally sound yet innovative bindings. The UK-based movement has its roots 1999 with Sün Evrard and was in part inspired by the late Edgar Mansfield who wrote that “surely it is better to create tomorrow’s past than to repeat today’s.” As British binder Jen Lindsay wrote in 2007, “Why go on making books based on Then – copying outdated methods and conventions, instead of making books based on Now – applying current knowledge and practice with a modern sensibility.”

TP member Kathy Abbott, a binder and conservator acknowledges that the work of TP has created quite a bit of controversy: some book conservators think we are imposing our will onto the books and think we should be more invisible; book restorers think that we should be making bindings which imitate the period of which the book was printed and book artists seem to like our structures but see us as a bit ‘staid’. This Bind-O-Rama created similar controversy in the US perhaps due to a misunderstanding of both the outcomes and on a deeper level of conservation ethics which as expressed consider every book to be rebound or treated as a cultural heritage artifact. This latter conflict was discussed at length in Barbara Appelbaum’s paper that was presented at the 2011 American Institute of Conservation meeting and entitled Conservation in the 21th Century; Will a 20th Century Code of Ethics Suffice? <http://barbaraappelbaumbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/paper_aic_conservation.pdf>.

While many books are most certainly cultural heritage artifacts either as objects themselves or as part of the collection that holds them, many, the majority perhaps are use objects that have seen a great deal of handling and exhibit their age and provenance through the wear that is exhibited by their deterioration of materials and structure. It is these objects that TP seeks to give new life and a renewed significance whether for collectors or antiquarians. Conservation principles of doing no harm, reversibility (or as expressed by James Reid-Cunningham, conservator at the Boston Athenaeum retreatability) expressed by the use of proven materials with long-term stability, sound structure, and a skillful and respectful expression of craft married to innovation in structure and design. It is the latter which seems to touch the most sensitive nerve with concerns about “appropriateness.” Conservator Chela Metzger writes, “most conservation treatment discusses “appropriateness” or even used the word sympathy when describing a treatment goal. The original old part must meet and mingle with a “non original” new part. The meeting and the mingling must work well at every level. But this appropriateness and sympathy are hard to sum up. Appropriate to the text subject matter? Appropriate for the text paper qualities? Appropriate to the text time period? Appropriate for the owner of the text at the time of the binding?”

As Abbott says, “why can’t we make really, sound, conservation bindings, with a bit of structural ingenuity and a sensitive aesthetic too?” This theme was also echoed in a side-discussion at the Guild of Book Workers 2011 Standards of Excellence Seminar. That discussion featured several conservators and binders working in the US, both with cultural heritage collections and as binders in general. <http://bonefolderextras.blogspot.com/2011/10/discussion-of-tomorrows-past-at-guild.html>.

While the response to this Bind-O-Rama was lower than we hoped, we were very pleased to see conservators and binders take up the challenge. In reviewing the entries we asked “what treatments would disqualify entries from this exhibit? Ones that immediately strike one as hurtful to the text. Ones that do not use stable materials? Ones that require damaging the text to remove it from the new binding. Fortunately we found no evidence that disqualified entries, however we do encourage those interested to see that it is not about traditional “design bindings” or “restoration” but sympathetically innovative conservationally sound bindings.

We hope that binders and conservators will adhere to the highest standards of conservation materials and structure while keeping an open mind and willingness to consider the aesthetic and structural options for rebinding. A large part of that will be an ongoing civil dialog in which conservators continue to stress and share their best practices and we all pragmatically consider the options for rebinding a given book in full consideration of its value and historic significance whatever that may (or may not) be. Writes Abbott, “I do hope that in the future, books bound in this way will be as accepted as every other binding style,” and “I think it could become the most exciting and challenging concept that has come out of the world of bookbinding for a long time.”

Comments by Kathy Abbott of Tomorrow's Past and The Bonefolder editorial staff.



Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Bound for Glory, the Book Artistry of Richard Minsky

A review by Miriam Schaer

Richard Minsky, foreword by Betty Bright. The Book Art of Richard Minsky, George Braziller, Inc., NY 2011. ISBN 10: 0807616060; ISBN 13: 9780807616062 (hardcover), 136pp, $34.95

It’s no exaggeration to say that Richard Minsky’s bindery is also his soapbox. Across a nearly half-century career, and counting, Minsky has produced a steady flow of bound volumes infused with anger, wit and passion. Expertly crafted, they transform workmanship into artistry by the ideas they embody and the propulsive energy of their maker.

Along the way, Minsky also became Johnny Appleseed to a growing community of people and organizations devoted to book arts, a term Minsky, himself, is credited with coining. In 1974, he founded the non-profit Center for Book Arts in New York, an organization of which (full disclosure) I am a long-time member, and the model for many other centers for the arts of the book.

A natural evangelist, Minsky has taught book art classes, curated book art exhibits, exhibited his own book arts, contributed to book art scholarship, challenged art world orthodoxies, outraged traditionalists, and founded (online) a Book Art Museum. The Book Art of Richard Minsky arrives as a timely, handsome, well-deserved retrospective of his most interesting, most photogenic works.

The Bound and the Beautiful

Book Art in America author Betty Bright sets the stage with a crisp introduction and clarifies the distinction between “art books” and “book arts” which, after Minsky, should nevermore be confused. Following Bright, Minsky himself takes over as tour guide to the Minsky oeuvre. A long section engagingly recounts his early years before tapering off into short takes on individual projects, most notably The Bill of Rights. Notes on additional works follow, anticlimactically ending with a CV.

Completed in the shadow of 9/11 and the ensuing threats to civil liberties, Minsky’s The Bill of Rights consists of 10 volumes, one for each of the first 10 amendments to the constitution. The work’s overall tenor can be seen in its treatment of the Second Amendment, concerning the right to bear arms. The amendment is represented by a Minsky-bound edition of Gathering Storm: America’s Militia Threat by Morris Dees and James Corcoran, its cover enhanced by such interior quotes as “America is quickly moving into a long dark night of police state tyranny.” Other amendments are similarly treated. The series is angry and impassioned.

Members of the Center for Book Arts will be familiar with pieces of the Minsky saga, as it’s long been absorbed into the Center’s creation myth: his boyhood in Queens, his discovery of letterpress printing in junior high, the death of both parents at early ages, his close relationships with his grandmother and sister. All this had an enormous impact on Minsky, and imprinted on him the importance of living at full throttle.

Other parts of the story will be less familiar: how he studied fencing and sang in the Brooklyn College choir, loved music and dance, applied for a job at the CIA to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam (hey, it was the Sixties), graduated with an economics degree, withdrew his CIA application, and transferred to Brown University to begin graduate studies in economics. (Believe me, this is not how most people become book artists.)

At Brown, he discovered the university bookbinder and bindery, which he duplicated in his tiny dorm room. The romance was on. Economics became a girlfriend left behind. But not entirely, and Minsky acquired an MA in the subject before transferring, under scholarship, to the New School in Manhattan, where he credits Prof. Horace Kallen’s Philosophy of Art course with changing him “from a bookbinder to a book artist.”

Weary of Nixonian America, Minsky headed to Europe in 1971. He visited master bookbinders, binderies and book conservators, and performed with a traveling folk-rock band, before returning to Queens where, with a loan from the Small Business Administration, he opened a bindery and book repair shop. His formal career had begun.

Those who have known, studied or worked with Minsky will be unable to read of these events without hearing his voice. Those newly encountering Minsky will find his voice an easy companion, and wish only there were more of what in London is referred to as the naughtier bits.

Épater la Bourgeoisie

The Minsky works that receive the most attention share a progressive sensibility and a commitment to civil rights. Volumes like Chemistry in Warfare (1993), with its gas-mask cover; George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (2003-2006), a prescient take on the surveillance society; and The Bill of Rights, bristle like leather-bound agitprop with the metaphors of outrage. Minsky’s desire for action traces back to his family. Both parents moved in political circles. His father created The Religious News Service to promote religious tolerance, and his mother worked for the Anti Defamation League and with the League of Women Voters. Minsky, himself, performed for a time with an anti-Vietnam performance troupe.

At the time they were first exhibited, many Minsky bindings were characterized as outrageous or scandalous, but chiefly within the conservative world of bookbinders. Always interested in pushing boundaries, Minsky doesn’t seem to have thought twice about binding Thomas Pettigrew’s A History of Egyptian Mummies (1973) in linen strips, as if mummifying the book itself, without the owner’s permission. Fortunately, he loved it.

Minsky adorned The Birds of North America (1975), submitted to a Guild of Book Workers exhibition at Yale, with pheasant skin, so the first thing the reader sees is a dead bird on the cover. This reportedly caused a conservator to scream on opening the package. Looking at the book now, it’s hard to see what the fuss was about, especially in light of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde-fueled career. Among the interesting aspects of Minsky’s work is his attraction to unorthodox materials, such as the rat skins he tanned and applied to Patti Smith’s Babel (1979), and the mystery skin covering Barton Lidicé Beneš’ The Dog Bite (1970).

Personally, I find The Geography of Hunger (1988), creepier than the rest. The edge of the binding, embedded with teeth, creates a mouth on the fore edge that makes it look as if the book could bite off one’s finger. Bits of food labels on the outer edges, make one feel the book has already chewed up a meal and is about to spit it back out.

Many Minsky books are off-the-shelf editions re-bound from his perspective. Usually strategic about the books he binds, he often selected hot-button titles and subjects along with binding materials certain to engage readers in a dialog about their content. Minsky decorated George Plimpton’s Fireworks: A History and Celebration (1992) with live fireworks and a box of matches; The Biological Time Bomb (1988) with explosives, batteries, electrical tape and a timer; and Nineteen Eighty-four with a miniature hidden video camera and embedded LED monitor so the reader sees on the cover his or her own image staring back above the warning “Big Brother is Watching You.”

Many volumes were bound deliberately to provoke or make a statement about important issues. For Holy Terror: The Fundamentalist War on America’s Freedoms in Politics, Religion and Our Private Lives (1988), Minsky foil-stamped on Nigerian goatskin a picture of himself as a TV preacher surrounded by the flames of Hell. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals (1988) sports a hypodermic needle, crack caps and a phosphorescent death head.

When Minsky develops a book from scratch ­ writing, illustrating and binding both the covers and their content ­ the subject is often sex. In Minsky in London (1980), the artist’s sex life shares the stage with instructions on tanning rat skins. Minsky in Bed (1988) explores the former subject further, continuing a long tradition of artists and writers who have harvested their exploits as artistic fodder, from Casanova and Henry Miller to Tracy Emin’s tent installation, Everyone I Ever Slept With 1963-1995.

Minsky’s twist was to do it in the style of incunabula. Sculpted brass knobs, called bosses, shaped as a copulating couple, protect Minsky in Bed‘s leather covers from coming in contact with any reading surface, while handcuffs chain the whole apparatus to a brass bed rail. Other Minsky projects stretch the very idea of a book. He bound Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap: A Novel (2003) in the form of a scroll, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Philosophy of Umbrellas (2008) as a Tyvek umbrella to commemorate the late Judith Hoffberg, editor and publisher of Umbrella, long an important resource for information about artists’ books.

At heart, however, Minsky is a traditionalist. His works include numerous traditional bindings, like the ones for Cook’s Voyages (1968) and Tom Phillips’ translation of Dante’s Inferno (1980), as well as many blank books and guest books bound in exotic leathers with Art Deco and other historically inspired cover designs. And nearly all his books use traditional codices, even when attached to a bed, an electric chair, barbed wire, or linen wrappings. The form of the codex, even if not fully intact, is almost always recognizable.

Minsky has also called attention to earlier era’s bindings with compendia like American Decorated Publishers’ Bindings 1872-1929 (3 volumes, 2006-2010) and The Art of American Book Covers 1875-1930 (2010), which revived interest in a number of important book cover designers. Many were women, who were encouraged to find employment creating designs for book covers and other objects of the new industrial age, and who have otherwise been written out of the history of the decorative arts of the period. Their stories are an important addition to the history of artists’ books, and publishing.

The Book Art of Richard Minsky deserves a place on every book arts shelf. It brings us up to date with, and up close to, the career, still active, of an essential book artist. The photographs are clear, bright, inclusive and abundant. Minsky’s vision is no less.




Miriam Schaer (www.miriamschaer.com) is a practicing book artist based in Brooklyn, New York, and a Lecturer in the Interdisciplinary MFA Program in Book and Paper at Columbia College Chicago. She can be contacted at mschaer@colum.edu.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Journal of Dora Damage

Belinda Starling. The Journal of Dora Damage. London: Bloomsbury, 2007. 464 pages. ISBN 1596913363. Out of print but available.

Reviewed by John Nove

[In light of recent conversations on Book_Arts-L about anthropodermic bibliopegy a sneak-peak at a review to be published in the upcoming issue of The Bonefolder – in production now. To read the thread, click on the link and the "view by topic..." ]

 A chance meeting with an English woman over dinner on a remote Scottish isle last summer led to the mention of her friend Belinda Starling, recently deceased, who was the author of a novel that, as a bookbinder, she was sure I’d find interesting. No other details were shared, but a week after she left the island a parcel arrived via the Royal Mail containing the paperback version of The Journal of Dora Damage. The several blurbs on the back cover included one from the French women’s magazine Marie Claire (“a riveting tale of bookbinding and Victorian pornography”) and another from The Guardian which proclaimed the book a “scrupulously researched racy tale”.

I immediately began reading it and was transported into the Lambeth district of London in the mid-19th century with all its bleakness, despair and poverty – a very Dickensian setting whose sights, smells and tastes Starling expertly captured. The story’s narrator is twenty-something Dora Damage, a binder’s daughter, then binder’s wife, who sets out to support her severely arthritic husband Peter and their epileptic young daughter Lucinda by taking over the family business at a time when women were seldom permitted to perform other than menial bindery tasks (=sewing). Her options are few – make an attempt at successfully running the bindery or debtors’ prison for the entire family. So with her husband’s verbal guidance and the forwarding assistance of his young apprentice she sets out to resurrect Damages Bindery under the disapproving gaze of her neighbors.

Salvation appears in the form of Sir Jocelyn Knightly, an Africa explorer, physician, bibliophile and exoticist. Attracted by her unusual tooling and choice of cover materials, Knightly and his group of friends, the Noble Savages, likely modeled after Sir Richard Burton and his Kama Shastra Society, begin to provide commissions – along with morphine for Peter, an experimental therapy for Lucinda, and for Dora, entry into an unimagined netherworld of Victorian smut. Courtesy of Lady Knightly, Dora is also sent Din, a freed slave from Virginia, to become her apprentice (and she his!) after Peter dies.

The novel plunges deeper and deeper into the realms of vice, racism and pornography while providing what seem to be accurate details of the day-to-day operation of her bindery and the local tanneries. Dora finally draws the line at the degree of depravity to which she is willing to close her eyes. (For me the line would have been drawn sooner –some of the material in this book, based on well-researched Victorian predilections, is strong stuff.) With all the information she has, however, and the police closing in on their ‘business’, the Savages declare her expendable, and as a fitting termination to their relationship kidnap her and tattoo their logo onto her buttocks, planning to eventually use her skin (vegetable-tanned, we assume) on yet another one of their nefarious volumes. (“The perfect quarto, you said? Mrs. Damage’s arse, I’m afraid, will cover little more than an octavo, and a crown octavo at that.”)

Good finally prevails, as it usually does in these Victorian novels – and their Masterpiece Theatre versions. Dora, Lucinda (now free of epilepsy), and Mrs. Knightly and her newborn half-black son move off to Gravesend as a family. Dora then uses some of newly-acquired wealth to create a support organization for women binders that by 1917 evolves into the Society of Women in the Bookbinding and Printing Trades.

In recent years I’ve seldom devoured a book as voraciously as I did this one. Its depiction of Victorian bindery life, together with its intrigue and malignant darkness – overshadowed by the fortitude of Dora herself – lead me not only to recommend it strongly but to also suggest that it might make an ideal (if somewhat unusual) ‘set book’ for a binding competition.



John Nove is a bookbinder working for private and institutional clients in western Massachusetts. He graduated from the North Bennet Street School and opened the Grey Seal Bindery, named to honor the selkies he hears singing from his summer cottage on the Scottish island of Papa Westray in Orkney. He can be reached at <nove.john@gmail.com>.