My mind and fingers became so tangled up in attempting to hand-sew signatures with linen thread into a dummy book, I gave up in disgust and abandoned myself to the pleasure of listening to our instructor.
Claire Van Vliet was philosophizing about glue and paper in her no-nonsense way as she displayed and described her application of a medieval method of book binding. It was non-adhesive, sturdy and flexible. The mass of structural threads, interwoven vertically in four places along the spine, and left exposed in the finished book, made a pleasing decoration.
She said that conservationists are "looking into ancient binding structures" like this. Glue and paper have been a problem in books of the 19th and 20th centuries, she said, hastening their deterioration. It is a case of "sleazy materials," yet it was "the sort of price we paid for literacy, sort of like today's TV shows."
This binding was the culmination of two afternoons of a hands-on class in practical bookbinding for the small press offered by Scripps College Press, Claremont. Van Vliet, nationally recognized master of the craft (definitely an art in her hands), had traveled from her Janus Press in West Burke, Vt., to teach the class.
Fruitful and pleasant past associations had helped bring her here. She had grown up in San Diego and had earned her master of fine arts degree in 1954 at Claremont Graduate School. It was in San Diego that she founded her Janus Press, named after the two-faced Roman god who was guardian of portals and patron of beginnings and endings. The press's first imprint was made during February of 1955.
Van Vliet showed us how she did the binding on a proper book--I should say a magnificent book--"The Circus of Doctor Lao," by Charles G. Finney, containing 37 illustrations in relief etchings by her, with gatherings sewn on the exposed cords and laced in rectangular patterns on a vellum spine. She had removed it from a linen-covered drop-back box. This book, which sells for $750, is the 75th publication of the Janus Press.
She had assured us that if we were neat and could sew straight, we, too, could produce a book like this--someday. I'm afraid I had shaken my head in disbelief.
Yet, for my wife and me, the class had not been in vain. We had driven home both days in states of euphoria. We had learned four other practical ways to bind with cover papers the publications of our little press housed in our garage, which my wife facetiously has named the Twocar Press, although it's properly named Abracadabra Press. We're confident we'll soon master these four simpler methods.
An advantage of Van Vliet's binding methods is that they do not require expensive bindery equipment, only the simplest of tools and a small homemade nipper, or book press, the materials for which I bought the other day for less than $10. It's all in the know-how a la Van Vliet, and it was these thoroughly practical (and creative) binding techniques that had delighted us so thoroughly.
She is an artist bristling with practicality. For example, Van Vliet believes that as long as a book can be held in one hand or on the lap to be read, almost any binding format will do, provided it's well made with good materials. She draws a distinction between fancifully designed books with contour cut leaves that fold out like an accordion and proper books. The former are paper sculptures, she said, and should be regarded as such, while a book has to "stand up on its own in the real world of books."
Books are to be read and used. They may be things of beauty, but they should not be treated as artifacts.