Book Review: Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie



A couple of weeks ago I went to Las Vegas, NV for the American Library Association Annual Conference, which was a huge blast. I still have major conference hangover from all the amazing sessions I went to on rare books and science librarianship, and from seeing STAN LEE IN PERSON!!

Aside from the amazing sessions, it was great to catch up with friends from the UT iSchool and Libraries. Two of my iSchool buddies and I stayed at Caesar’s Palace, which was pretty hilarious for about two days and then got really old.

I also LOVED the exhibitors hall because: BOOKS. This was my first ALA Annual, so I really had no idea how huge the hall was going to be, or what people would be bringing. I expected lots of booths for vendors like Elsevier, Springer, etc. and they were there. I got this adorable caricature from the good folks at Thompson Reuters, and then I discovered that publishers were there giving out free books. I will never pass up free books and it’s a good thing I drove from Irvine to Las Vegas because I walked out with 25 new books. The majority of them were ARCs for upcoming books, including the one I’m going to write my inaugural book review post about.

Please note: I’m discussing an unproofed ARC in this post, so please keep that in mind. I will be checking my quotations and revising as necessary when my “real” copy arrives after the book is officially published in September. There will also be spoilers, so beware! Continue reading


Treatment Techniques for Bound Materials

Back in Feburary I posted a little bit about one of the classes I took this semester, Treatment Techniques for Bound Materials. Now that the semester is over, I thought I’d share a little bit more about what I created and learned in the class.

The original binding of the ‘Three Musketeers’ book, lovingly repaired with packing tape.

As I mentioned last time, the class started out with learning how to build books from scratch in an effort to understand how books are made so that we could better understand how to repair them. I made a couple of more books over the course of the semester, but I think the best skillset I learned in the class was how to recase paperback books whose covers had come apart. I certainly have a fair few of those on my shelves at home! For the purposes of learning and not mucking up something that has sentimental value or would be hard to replace, I started with a $2 copy of The Outlaw of Torn by Edgar Rice Burroughs that I bought in 2007 to take on a backpacking trip to England and Ireland (this was in the pre-iPad days when I was still hauling paperbacks around on holidays) and a standard Penguin paperback edition of The Three Musketeers that I bought when I was about 10 and which was definitely quite the worse for wear.

The new cover and fake bookplate of the ‘Three Musketeers’ rebind.

The method for rebinding a paperback is really quite simple: you pull off the covers, cut off the old spine on a purpose-built machine and then put the textblock in a vice, after which you fan the book out in both directions and slather PVA glue on it until the glue covers the spine and creates a new adhesive. Then you build a case and glue the text block in. Easy, right? ;)

It’s really not so bad, but my first attempt, on The Outlaw of Torn, was quite messy—I managed to get glue on the head and tail of the text block, which meant the pages stuck together when the glue dried. I also didn’t do a great job in creating the case: the binder’s boards warped, I ended up with more book cloth on the spine than I wanted (and it ended up crooked, to boot), and the paper that I’d chosen for the cover (a beautiful but delicate Japanese paper with gold vines) was so delicate that the glue dampened it to the point where it rubbed or was stained. The final product isn’t awful, and for a first attempt I think it was quite good, but my second attempt turned out much better.

The front cover of the rebound ‘Three Musketeers.’

My old and much loved copy of The Three Musketeers ended up rebound in paper that had a map of Paris in the late 1800s printed on it. I cut sections out of the paper that roughly lined up with places I knew featured in the book so that I’d have a map to hand on future re-readings and could follow d’Artagnan’s progress through the French capital. I also cut the coat of arms of the city out of the bottom corner to make a fake bookplate for the front pastedown.
The new case ended up being perfect, and it’s probably the best case and case-in that I did all semester. I managed to glue the text block into the case without ending up with anything crooked, and the whole thing just looks gorgeous. I’m really proud of it, and now I want to re-do all of my paperbacks!

One of our final projects for the semester was to collect a variety of technique descriptions into a treatment manual that would serve as our go-to resource in the future. I decided to collect web links to tutorials and videos in an account on, which I am very pleased to share with you all. I hope some of you find it interesting to browse through the different methods for fixing common book problems! And, as I mentioned last time, pictures of most of the repairs I made in this class are available on Flickr. Enjoy!

Bookmaking: Part Two!

This blog started out with the story of how I made my own manuscript book because after studying medieval manuscript and book creation methods in a classroom for my first master’s degree, I thought that actually putting some of them into practice would help me get a better appreciation for how to talk about books from a codicological standpoint. And it did! My little copy of part of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess really helped me understand the steps that books go through as they’re being made.

This semester I’m taking a course in the UT School of Information’s conservation department called “Treatment Techniques for Bound Materials,” and the first seven weeks of class have been devoted to making our own book from the ground up.

My bookbinder's toolkit.

My bookbinder’s toolkit.

It’s exciting work and I love every minute of it! I’ve uploaded pictures and information about the steps I’ve gone through to a Flickr album.

Our next portion of the class will be dedicated to rebinding books, particularly paperbacks that had especially cheap bindings. I’ve picked two of my favourite paperback books that are in serious need of a new binding: a copy of The Outlaw of Torn by Edgard Rice Burroughs that I bought for $2 and which is coming completely unglued from its current covering; and my first copy of Dumas’ Three Musketeers, which has been repaired with packing tape several times already. I’ve picked up some lovely papers for their news covers, and I’m excited to start working on them next week.

Medieval Manuscripts Fragments as Binding Materials, a New Project at the Harry Ransom Center

A medieval manuscript text used as the binding material of a 1561 copy of Aesop’s Fables. Image from the Ransom Center Fragments Project’s Flickr.

Medieval and early modern people were great re-users.  The concept of processing used materials into new products to prevent the waste of expensive materials wasn’t an unusual or extraordinary idea to them: times were tough and in the business of manuscripts and books, materials were expensive and could be hard to come by.  There wasn’t a sense of uniqueness or the desperate need to preserve for future generations, as there is today, so parchment manuscripts that we might consider priceless today were scraped clean to have new manuscripts written upon them.

As horrifying as it sounds to us postmodern peoples, for whom any scrap of medieval manuscript text has enormous value, in the early modern period medieval parchment manuscripts were unbound, sliced, diced, chopped, and julienned to be re-used in the bindings of newer, “better” printed books.  Parchment was an ideal material for strengthening a book’s spine as a liner, or for use as an easy, cheap cover or endpaper.  Indeed, some scholars believe it was common practice to dismantle a manuscript book into such “manuscript waste” fragments once the book had been set out in type and printed.  We can be thankful the Winchester Malory manuscript of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur did not meet this fate, as it spent several years sitting around William Caxton’s printing shop while he worked on his printed edition.

Since the practice of using and re-using manuscript waste was so prevalent, it’s not all that surprising to find bits and pieces of medieval manuscripts tucked into early modern books held by research libraries around the world, and it seems like cataloguing, describing, digitizing and exhibiting such finds is becoming more and more popular: two years ago, the Yale Law Library created an exhibit around 150 medieval manuscript fragments in early modern law books in their collections, called Reused, Rebound, Recovered: Medieval Manuscript Fragments in Law Book Bindings.

Closer to home (and my heart), the Harry Ransom Center is beginning a project of cataloguing, describing, and digitizing the medieval manuscript fragments in their collections.  Conducted by Micah Erwin (who recently discovered the impression of a pair of medieval spectacles on such a fragment, as I mentioned here on my blog), the project aims to survey the fragments and share  knowledge and awareness of them with other medieval manuscript scholars and librarians:

The Harry Ransom Center’s on going project to survey manuscript waste in their book collections. It is managed by Micah Erwin, Project Archivist, and supervised by Joan Sibley, Senior Archivist in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department.  The Harry Ransom Center is currently conducting a survey of medieval manuscript fragments and binder’s waste found in the Book Collection. We are posting low resolution images of some of these fragments on Flickr and Facebook to share with others. We would be grateful for any comments and/or additional information that you would like to contribute about these items.

It’s an exciting project to me, personally, as it draws on both my love of medieval manuscripts and my dream of using the resources made available to scholars and librarians by social media sites such as Flickr and Facebook to connect researchers to materials so that knowledge and understanding can grow out of such connections.  It’s the perfect example of my idea of book archaeology in the digital age!  By working collaboratively to identify the fragments, we can possibly learn more about early modern bookbinders and the spread of early modern books.

The first step, of course, is getting awareness of the project out there, and that’s what I’m hoping to help with!  Please consider liking the project’s Facebook page and sharing it on your timeline, or tweeting and retweeting the link to the project’s Flickr page!

Bookbinders Are Crazy (And I Apparently Have a Lot to Live Up To)

First off, let’s just pretend the last month didn’t happen, okay?  Turns out getting back into graduate school involves a lot of life restructuring and a lot of relearning how to be disciplined (and also a lot of relearning about what a “criticism” about a reading is).  The good news is the semester’s half way over.  The bad news is the semester’s half way over.  Expect continued sporadic updates until early December, but then you have such topics to look forward to as “learning with new technology 2,” “should librarians really have special master’s degrees?” and “marginalia from the 14th century to my notebooks.”

For today, here’s some interesting tidbits on bookbinders from some of my Studies in the Book Arts readings:

Binders as individuals are not without interest—for example, Jean de Planche, binder and bigamist; Roger Payne, whose ‘reputation has been enhanced by his partiality for strong drink and his elaborate, not always truthful, bills’; Christopher Plantin, whose binding career ended in a brawl with a drunken nobleman; and Thomas Elliott, who revenged himself on a complaining client by incorporating the letters of his own name into the design of two bindings!1

The same reading goes on to explain that some bookbinders were archbishops like Saint Osmund and that Roger Payne, my new hero,  did not trust his patrons to sufficiently appreciate his genius.

Seems like bookbinders are pretty volatile and awesome people, and I’m proud to be among their number even if my poor coptic binding lacks any finishing (… still, I mean it’s only been a year) and I’m not a bigamist. ;)

1 – From P. J. M. Marks’ The British Library Guide to Bookbinding History and Techniques

Questions From The Audience

This question was originally asked as a comment on a Facebook repost of my Tumblr.

This project is wicked awesome!!! Okay, so, I’m curious- what kind of paper did you use? Where did you find it? I *love* historic writing, but find getting the right equipment a challenge. It looks absolutely gorgeous!!! What a fantastic and *clever* craft project! What did you use for sizing? :) I’ve heard of using gelatine to keep the ink from feathering too much, but I’ve never quite figured out how. And I think the cotton content has got to make a difference, too.

Laura Rice

For the writing I used a standard calligraphy pen. I attempted to make my own quills, but the quality of feathers that were readily available was so poor I couldn’t get anywhere near a fine enough point to do the lettering. The ink is standard, too, although I did make sure to by natural, organic ink (which smelled a bit like my favorite Mongolian barbecue, so every time I spent an evening writing, I always wanted that for dinner!) to make sure that I got as close to medieval materials as possible.

Regarding the sizing, I’m not actually sure what I used!  It was whatever the papermaking teacher had in stock and recommended to me. I can definitely find out and post the results here!

Questions From The Audience

Probably I missed this discussion, but what are you doing with the codex when it’s done?

Jess Ehinger

The honest answer: I don’t know.  I have toyed with the idea of giving it as a present to various people, but this book was quiet selfishly made for myself.

The text from The Book of the Duchess  was selected to induce a catharsis after my boyfriend and I split, so I chose sections that are all about the loss of companionship and rather elegaic, along the lines of how most people interpret BotD.  However, as I’ve been transcribing the poem, I keep thinking back to an article I read while writing on BotD in college which argued that the poem wasn’t an elegy, but a celebration of death, endings, and transitions to new things.  So, that’s how I’ve come to view the text for myself, and I’m not sure that if I gave it away it would mean as much to the recipient as it means to me, right now.

So, probably it will go on my bookshelf at home, or perhaps I will frame it laying open to a favored page, like they do with other display manuscripts.

Binding and Sewing

And now: the binding.

I’m binding my book by the coptic method, which involved using two different strings and sewing.  I am bad at sewing, so this was quite an endeavour.  The first step was to punch holes in the pages using an awl and a guide sheet:

After which I sewed each set of pages in:

In retrospect, I wish I had chosen other colours than sage green and blue, but oh well.

The Last Word

Last word, ink still wet.  I’m kind of sad now to have finished it, but the binding and leaf-laying are still to go.  Still, perfecting my pretty faux Anglicana was fun and I enjoyed how much effort it took to scratch out the words.

The Final Push

“And for as moche as in the wrytyng of the same [book] my penne is worn / myn hande wery & not stedfast myn eyen dimmed with ouermoche lokyng on the whit paper / and my corage not so prone and redy to laboure as hit hath ben.”

From Caxton’s Epilogue to Book III of The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye.

 I first came across this quote while writing on Caxton for my master’s dissertation at Oxford and as I struggled through the final days of writing that, these sentiments remained uppermost in my mind.  They’ve come back to me again as I make the final push towards completing my scrivening of this project ahead of my meeting with my bookmaking instructor Tuesday, when I will finally makes the cover boards for the codex and sew the binding.