Working (The Quiet Life: Donna Murray)
She has been binding books for twenty-five years. Among her clients have been the University of Chicago, the Arboretum, the Art Institute, and private collectors. Her reflections are somewhat free associative in nature.
"I didn't even really become a bookbinder. It happened because we had so many books. I inherited this great big library from my father , and John [her husband, an artist and professor of art at a local branch of the state university] had many, many art books that were falling apart. We had acres of books, and I thought this was the thing to do: I'll put these books together and make them fit. So I began a sort of experiment and I enjoyed it very much. I became a bookbinder because I had nothing else to do."
At first no one taught me. I wasn't doing much of anything. Then a marvelous woman, who's a brilliant artist, gave me a marvelous frame that her father made for her, for sewing books and that sort of thing. So I learned to sew books. They're really good books, it's just the covers that are rotten. You take them apart and you make them sound and you smash them in and sew them up. That's all there is to it.
I have a bindery at home, it's kind of a cave, really. It's where you have your gear--a table where you work, a cutter, a press, and those kinds of things. You have a good screw press, a heavy one that presses the books down. A binder's gear is principally his thumbnail. You push, you use your thumbnail more than anything else.
I mustn't pose as a fine binder because I'm not. That's exhibition binding, gold tooling. You roll out this design and you fill it with egg white. Then you cover it with pure gold leaf. I enjoy restoration very much--when you restore an old book that's all ragged at the back. You must make a rubbing of the spine. The spine's all rotten, so you put that aside and you turn back the pages very carefully. That's what I enjoy most of all.
Obviously I don't make much money binding books, but it's very cozy work. Carolyn [Carolyn Horton, her mentor] and I did simple, necessary things for the university. We bound precious pamphlets in a way that preserved them. Incunabula--books printed before 1500. Architectural works and something of the Latin poets.
Those made of vellum are usually just rotten in the back. Vellum's a wild thing, the hide of a calf or a lamb. It's treated with acid. The pages are falling apart. You take them out if you can and you wash them, deacidify them in a certain solution. Then you fold them together and press them in your press.
Some of my private customers have very splendid collections, beautiful bindings you'll never see again. I have very specific, lovely clients. One, who's no longer living, had a magnificent collection of Stevenson and Dickens, first editions.
I go to the house and take my equipment, oils and paints and a certain binder's paste. And a painter's drop cloth. There's a beautiful Oriental rug, and indeed you may not drop anything on it. You set up a card table and book ends and that's about it, really.
We calculate the books. We make a point of being sure that the books go back exactly where they were before. We look at each book and pull it out an test it for tears. Almost everybody pulls books out by their tops, and they're always broken. Torn from beautiful leather bindings. In dusting books, you never touch them inside. The dust only goes to the top. People who pull them out with the idea of dusting them--it's just ridiculous. It only destroys the book.
My assistant takes the cloth for me, and then we line up the books. She dusts the tops. You always dust from the spine out, cleaning the book. Then you use the marvelous British Museum formula, potassium lactate. It's swabbed on the books to put back in the leather the acids that were taken out, that were in the hide in the beginning. They've been dried out completely and all the salts have been destroyed. So we swab all the leather goods with this potassium lactate. A very little swab, and let it sink in. Then these books are polished and put back on the shelves. It preserves books that could never exist in this climate after five years.
It's an arduous thing, but I suppose it's important because if that kind of thing didn't happen, the books would just disintegrate. Father's library did. Especially in the city with its very high potency of sulfur dioxide, which eats up the books. The hideous air, the poisonous air of the city. People love to have whole sets of Dickens or Mark Twain or Dumas--the kinds of popular acquisitions in our mothers' age, when they filled up their shelves. The books in Chicago are disintegrating to a most appalling degree in comparison to the books of the same issue in Lake Forest [A far North Shore suburb of Chicago; its most upper U]. It's been going on for years. It destroys them. It eats them up. Terrible.
I usually arrive at about ten thirty. I work as long as it pleases me. If I fill up the table and the books are oiled, I often leave at four or six. I might work for one client two or three weeks. In the case of Mrs. Armour's books, it was a matter of six months. She had a superb collection stored in the old house. It took two days to unpack the crates. Her mother was a collector of exceedingly marvelous taste. It was undeniably one of the most beautiful collections of books I've ever seen. Not only in the binding, but in the selection. It was kind of wonderful to be there at that moment.
I wouldn't want to bind anything that was flimsy. You have to think of what's inside. If you're binding a book about a big idea--Karl Marx! (laughs)--you obviously would accommodate a binding, wouldn't you? The idea of the binding should reflect what's inside. The books at the Arboretum are among the most interesting. Some of them are sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books, marvelous herbals. Beautiful, beautiful books. Flower papers. There is no special way you relate your own taste, your reflections.
If they're the marvelous trees of Japan--oh dear, oh dear. I was reared in California where I saw the redwoods that are now being systematically destroyed. And there's some redwood trees in Japan that relate to what you're thinking, oh dear (softly). You must be very clever with a binding and give it the dignity it deserves. Because the pages are so full of stunning, fantastic things that say, This is life. So what do you do with a binding like that? I don't know. You just give it a strength. If it's leather or it's cloth or it's paper, you give it strength, an indication of what is inside.
I only enjoy working on books that say something. I know this is an anathema to people who insist on preserving books that are only going to be on the shelves forever--or on coffee tables. Books are for people to read, and that's that. I think books are for the birds unless people read them.
That's what I discovered when I worked in Florence after the big flood. I came in the summer. John and I lived there and he worked there during his first sabbatical. I loved that city so much. And when someone from the Bibleoteca Nazionale asked me to come...
It would be darling to look into books when you're working on them, lured by them--obviously you can't. You'd never finish your work. I can read books on my own time. I feel very strongly about every book I pick up. It's like something alive or--or decadent, death. I wouldn't for one moment bind Mein Kampf, because I think it's disgusting to waste time on such an obscenity. Are you offering me a million dollars to bind that? Of course not.
I adore the work. It's very comforting. The only thing that makes me angry is that I'm almost all the time on the outside rather than on the inside. I'd like to be reading them. But I do think working in my house and being comfortable and doing something you feel is beneficial--it is important, isn't it?
I'm just a swabber. (Laughs.) I'm not an artist. I just use aniline dyes, so they won't be hurting the leather. Aniline's a natural dye, and that's about it. It isn't very skilled work. It's just knowing what books need, if you want to preserve them. It's just something you do. A mechanic takes care of a tire, and he knows...
Oh, I think it's important. Books are things that keep us going. Books--I haven't got much feeling about many other things. I adore the work. Except sometimes it becomes very lonesome. It's nice to sit beside somebody, whether it's somebody who works with you or whether it's your husband or your friend. It's just lovely, just like a whisper, always...If you were really brainy, you wouldn't waste your time pasting and binding. But if you bind good books, you make something good, really truly good. Yes, I would like to make a good book hold good and I would like to be involved in a pact that will not be broken, that holds good, which would really be as solid as the book.
Keeping a four-hundred-year-old book together keeps that spirit alive. It's an alluring kind of thing, lovely, because you know that belongs to us. Because a book is a life, like one man is a life. Yes, yes, this work is good for me, therapeutic for old age...just keep going with the hands...