A Bad Trend in the Craft Book industry,
And a good book that bucks it.

Kropper, Jean G., Handmade Books and Cards, Davis Publications, incl, Worcester, Massachusetts, copyright 1997, isbn 0-87192-337-3, 148pp.

All things being equal, wouldn't you rather read about how an author has done something well, rather than the dreadful state of the industry (or nation, or world...)? Good. I'll start with Jean G. Kropper's wonderful Handmade Books and Cards—or at least a little background, and end with the rant.

Once upon a time, calligraphy was not an art, nor even a craft, but a skill set, like typing today, mastered in order to produce books, or indeed written words of any kind—and in fact it was still practiced at a very high level as late as the 1800s, even after the invention of the printing press, which dealt it a heavy blow; computers, especially in the shape of pdas, threaten to render it completely unnecessary. (Or so my child, who has little desire and thus less skill to write legibly, would have me believe.)

Since then the art of beautiful writing has rebloomed, as an art form, and some very exciting things are being done today; of course in some parts of the world, calligraphy has always been revered—Asia, where brush calligraphy has been beautifully combined with watercolor painting; and in the Middle East, where religious prohibitions have constrained artists to blend beautiful geometric patterns with the arabic script.

When the production of the pages of a book could absorb a man's lifetime (in the West, at least, women didn't seem to be much encouraged, as far as I can tell) it made perfect sense for the binding, which served much the same function as a frame for a painting, to be equally elaborate; and so medieval bindings often were. But just as the printing press lessened the necessity for calligraphy, it reduced the cost of the written word, though, again, books being produced in the 1800s—even the early 1900s—were often very attractively bound. (To be fair, there are some nicely produced and bound books today, but they're a tiny percentage of the overall market...though I'm guessing even so they're more of them now than back in the day—just as there are now, supposedly, more armorers for the SCA than there were in medieval times.)

But as printing costs continued to plunge, so did the quality of the paper, and, with it, the bindings. Paperbacks today are so cheaply made that the pages may fall out after one reading. Though the advent of computers and printers has brought the realm of many types of written materials within the purview of the average person, the equipment to print and, more importantly, bind a book, is still out of reach at a commercial level. (Though it's getting closer, what with the growth of the print-on-demand industry.)

Meanwhile, traditional bookbinding, in which signatures, or sets of folded pages, are sewn into a binding, has, like calligraphy, retreated into an art form; in fact, artists are combining hand-made papers, calligraphy and binding to make one-of-kind art pieces, and it from this perspective that Kropper writes.

Of course, when one can so easily purchase books and cards, why make them? —This is the issue the author addresses first, in her introduction, to a variety of individuals—her hand-made paper students, experienced bookbinders, and everyone else in between. She makes a real effort to be inclusive, and particularly to suggest adaptations to teachers of all levels, and it is this flexibility I particularly wish to celebrate.

She then goes on to discuss the history of books, which of course started out as papyrus scrolls. She notes the Chinese, who invented paper, also invented the first printing press—in 1045. Alas, the asian character sets didn't really lend themselves to practical reproduction until the invention of the computer and printer, since there are thousands of idea-graphs.

After this fascinating introduction to the history of bookbinding, she starts out with the simplest of all projects—valentine and christmas cards—while still showing a wonderful artist-made example of the same thing, to inspire, thus both easing the reader gently into the medium while suggesting wonderful things if that same reader would just keep going... In fact, that is this book's other great strength—wonderful works, sprinkled throughout, generally corresponding to the topic at hand—with good provenence, including dimensions and brief but entertaining descriptions.

Only with Chapter two does she start getting into the tools and basic techniques, and like many true enthusiasts whose crafts runs to potentially very expensive equipment, begins with household items, and a number of alternatives to try (ordinary white glue versus purchased paste versus hand-made paste, for which she supplies a recipe).

Chapter three covers typography, and the many ways the student might generate it (carved erasers, all the way through off-set printing, which is what is used in the commercial world), ending with a “class book” —an open-ended project directed to a teacher with students, but feasible for any group of people. (It would be perfect for my stichNbitch group, for example.)

Chapter four detours into a brief roundup of patterned papers; (and, speaking of detours, the place to go in the ann arbor-ypsi area for gorgeous papers, bookbinding supplies and the like is Hollanders, oh my luscious) chapter 5 circles back to the greeting card theme, now that the reader has a bigger toolbox of techniques and ideas, allowing the author to explore some unusual cards, such as 3-d star shaped ones, that aren't going to be available at the average hall-mark store. I should note, interleaved with the technical suggestions are equally valid ideas for incorporating one's creative impulses—approaches for personalizing said cards, for example.

Only in chapter six does she really start getting into book design, with definitions of all those technical terms—leaf, page, folio, signature and the like. Instead of telling how to make her book, she asks a number of questions instead, drawing the student through the decision making process—the project thus can be tailored, and tailored by the person doing it. Just in case the student still isn't quite certain what she wants to do, the author provides a ‘portfolio of book ideas’. Binding is covered equally thoroughly, in a step-by-step process, with a list of tools.

Given the popularity of scrapbooking, chapter 7 ought to bring joy to a lot of hearts, especially since when creating your own albums, the potential for compensating for the items—sometimes rather thick items—one might wish to include would be very enticing. Chapter 8 covers advanced bindings, and the examples have veered into the sort of thing I've seen in museums—really wonderful pieces. Chapters 9, ‘Creative Departures’, and 10, ‘Design Beyond the Ordinary’, push the medium to its current limits—yet, oddly enough, feature projects that might be completed in a relatively short period of time.

Just before a handy glossary and index, Kroppen finishes with a very brief discussion of traditional goffered, sculpted, and painted fore-edges—perhaps not with the same detail of earlier topics, but certainly enough to get the reader thinking, ‘What if...’ as well as some handy hints (practice on old paperbacks first, so as not to ruin your hand made book!)

In short, this is an absolutely fabulous craft book, that works on practically every level I can think of: it has history, it eases the reader in, it covers the material in an organized fashion with lists of tools and materials and step-by-step instructions, which lead the reader not only through the construction but the design process as well; it provides a wealth of suggestions, again not only as to materials and technique, but creative approach; though the focus is on modern bookbinding, there's plenty for the traditionalist as well; there are lots of ideas geered to the teacher; there's a fabulous gallery of works (many Australian, as the author is herself—nice to know they're doing great craft on the other side of the world, too!) beautifully incorporated in the text (instead of being shoved at the back.)

So many craft how-to books attempt to reduce the topic to a series of one or two hour projects, for those busy folk who evidently are unwilling to spend the time to develop the craft (let alone the money to purchase decent tools). I'm all for quick gratification (glass beadmaking is great that way) but what I really detest about these quickie project books is that there's no progress: the reader knows no more at the end of the book than the beginning. That's a shame. It's also arrogant, because it makes the assumption that inexperienced folk are incapable of creating—given a chance and some encouragement, you'd be surprised what beginners can do (I have, and so has has ever other teacher, as far as I can tell).

In other words, Handmade Books and Crafts follows the assumptions common in many of my older craft books: that the author loves her subject, wants to share it and automatically assumes her readers want to learn, and learn how to make their own stuff, not copy someone else's recipe. She starts out with simple projects and leads the reader through progressively more difficult ones. (Not all strictly project-oriented books are bad—Nicolette Stessin's Beaded Amulet Purses is all projects, but the projects are contributed by different artists, with differing approaches, and they do increase in complexity throughout the book. Though there are more modern publications on amulet bags, the Stessin remains my favorite.) There are enough pages to cover the topic, and modern typesetting tools allow the author to shade materials lists and put illustrations and their descriptions along the margins—marvelous.

Even busy people with a small budget should be exposed to the whole range of potential a medium has to offer—after all, they might discover they do in fact want to devote some serious time and money.