A Brief History of Bookbdinding 3: The myth of the ideal binding

Every discipline has its mythic Golden Age, when sordid financial concerns didn’t interfere with the practice of the Art. For bookbinders, it’s the seventeenth century*. Our standards of “fine binding” are based on the work of the time.

A fine binding is generally covered in leather. It’s pretty – usually gold-tooled – and many have gilt page edges. The head and tail have bright silk headbands sewn directly on the book, not stuck on, like modern headbands. Endpapers are generally marbled.

Structurally, the seventeenth century style consists of signatures sewn on raised linen cords (usually five). The leather of the spine is attached to the backs of the sections, usually with a couple of layers of paper, fabric or leather padding. This is called a tight back, or a flexible spine. The spine itself is rounded and backed, meaning it’s shaped like the letter C, wider than the book block itself. (The difference in thickness leaves space for the cover boards.)

The greyboard (high density cardboard) covers are laced onto the book block with the ends of the cords (the ends of the cords are pressed and frayed so that they don’t lump up). What’s interesting to someone used to modern book styles is that there is no groove between the spine and the rest of the cover. It’s called a tight joint, and it means that widest part of the shoulder nestles against the spine side of the cover board.

If you’ve never held a book with a flexible spine and a tight joint, I can’t explain it to you. It feelsĀ right, in a way that makes the modern hardback book a mere pastische of what a book should be.

It’s not an ideal style – it includes some compromises to make the covers open smoothly. The leather at the hinges is generally pared a bit thinner than is sustainable over centuries (a lot of these books have split there.) And it’s time-consuming to bind, meaning that books in that style are expensive. I’m too much of a populist to approve.

But I love holding, reading, and opening this style of book more than any others in the world.

* This is mostly due to an Arts and Crafts-era bookbinder and printer, Thomas J Cobden-Sanderson. Although he was a forward-thinking man, adding his wife’s name to his on marriage and paying his workers a living wage for a limited work week, his taste in binding was nostalgic.

Originally posted on Making Light