“Do your worst!” shouted in defiance yours truly as he was backing books in his bindery during the relentless summer heat of the sun-scorched Athens. “Do your worst vile summer for I will not be deterred by your stupefying blaze, nor will the books remain unbound on my bench! I’d rather die and my remains be found hanging from the press with the backing hammer still gripped by my unresting hand!”. And the battle carries on…
The bookbinder has always been the unsung hero and this post pays homage to his endeavors and hardships, frustrations and desires, flaws and virtues and overall magnificence. Take some time to read a few interesting poems devoted to bookbinders, one way or another…
Presented in order of chaos, from bad to worse;
1) The Gilder’s lament
One of the decorative techniques in bookbinding is edge gilding, which was popular until the late 19th century. The gold is laid on the edges of the book, sometimes adorned with tooling as well. It is a very demanding technique that requires skill and experience.
Even so, things can go wrong as you will find out in this poem by a frustrated gilder from the 17th century.
Image by Suzana Dominguez Martin from Encuadernacion de Arte
My size is prepared,
The leaf is laid out,
My agate is polished and smooth.
The press, it is loaded,
The edge has been scraped,
I feel like I’m in the groove.
I put on the size,
I lay on the gold,
My confidence reaching its peak.
I polish the edge,
Till I see by its shine,
The edge of perfection I seek.
I take the book out,
Fan open the leaves,
My heart stops still in mid-beat.
Where has the gold gone,
I look all around.
As the leaf flakes onto my feet.
Oh, where did I err,
I did everything right,
But the gold, it just didn’t stick.
I love the gilt edge,
But the process is such,
That it leaves me feeling quite sick.
2) How not to do it!
Backing is when the book’s spine is given a “mushroom” shape by striking it with a bookbinder’s (or cobbler’s) hammer. It takes time, effort and a lot of ruined books to be able to perform a good backing. The blows need to be in a sweeping manner, initially delivered almost horizontally while progressively moving to a steeper angle.
Image by Roger Grech from Papercut bindery.
A bad backing can be a horrific sight! And that’s why the following poem by Tom Conroy (a fine binder from Berkley California) is a prospect terrifying beyond words for the bookbinding mind…
Malcolm bashes books he backs,
Hammer falling straight and hard,
Lets them set in crooked stacks,
Asymmetric, dented, jarred,
Twisted heads and crumpled tails.
Seems to think he’s driving nails.
Foolish lad! He now is binding
Full of hammers for the finding,
Hard as hearts and big as logs.
Out they come when backing’s noised.
See the books with hammers poised.
Malcontented books back Malcolm
Bash his spine from head to tail,
Straight blows! Hard blows! None can balk ’em!
Malcolm crumples with a wail.
He lies crooked on the ground.
Futile tears won’t bring him round.
3) The curse
And now my personal favorite; A Solemn curse by Ben Burnisher pronounced upon a Master Bookbinder, circa 1880.
What follows is the absolute nightmare for every bookbinder there ever was. Period. Everything described is a heart stopping, mind numbing and blood chilling prospect.
Dimitri’s Bookbinding Corner honors the writer of the poem with the award for the most inspired and horror invoking but also elegantly phrased curse.
May rats and mice devour you paste,
Your paper and your leather;
May your hand letters be defaced,
Your types all mixed together.
May all your pallets, stamps and rolls,
Be on their faces battered;
Your beating stone packed full of holes,
Your hammer in pieces shattered.
And may your standing press fall down,
Your pressing boards be cracked;
May your law leather all turn brown,
Each law book edged in black.
May you be bothered all your life,
With workman brandy lovers;
With sandy boards and dull plough knife,
Thin paste, and horny covers.
And May your gilding all rub off,
Your roll burn through the leather,
And you hereforward be obliged
To finish in dry weather.
And may your polisher upon
The face be full of scratches,
And every cover you put on
At least have twenty patches.
May all your colours be too strong,
So as to rot your leather,
May all your books be lettered wrong,
Your fly leaves stick together.
May your laying press all get broke,
Your books be wrong collated;
And may you with foul charcoal smoke
Be almost suffocated.
May your apprentice run away;
Your business be diminished;
And may booksellers never pay
You when the work is finished.
God grant that the distressed may be
from Constable to Beadle;
And live till you can’t feel or see
Your press-pin from your needle.
Fellow binders, before you condemn Ben in total disgust for uttering words so foul, please take a moment to appreciate the imagination and passion that went into the creation of such a poem. Remarkable truly!
And with that I wish you all a nice summer!