Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

From papyrus to bookbinding

Mai Samih examines the history of hand bookbinding

Al-Ahram Weekly

The book as we know it today did not always take its present form. It went through a process of evolution from a roll of paper or papyrus to its present paper form. One of the earliest known books is a papyrus roll dating from the third millennium BCE that contains 18 columns of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, according to Hand Bookbinding by US writer Aldren A. Watson.

Such rolls were used for some two thousand years and developed even when parchment replaced papyrus. For a long time the roll volume, a word derived from the Latin verb volvere meaning to roll, remained the standard form for books.

Bookbinding was invented to avoid the physical wear and tear on rolled paper carried in tubes, especially to religious books that needed to be preserved. Since monasteries were the guardians of nearly all knowledge and culture in the Middle Ages, they were given the tasks of binding the first books. They started to bind ecclesiastical literature and manuscript books to serve the clergy, Watson says.

The need to preserve chapters from the Holy Quran also moved the Caliph Othman Bin Affan to order the holy book to be bound.

Early books were large in size as manuscripts combined with the animal skin used as binding were sometimes bulky. The books were handwritten and copied with infinite patience and skill and were often considered to be works of art. Early books were stored on shelves or chained to desks for safekeeping. They were ceremonial books, only used by few people, Watson says. The Arabs were among the first to decorate book covers with symmetrical shapes in the Seljuk, Mamluke and Ottoman periods. Arab artists drew round shapes that resembled the sun on books, for example, according to scholar Cazim Hadzimejlic.

The manuscript rolls would be cut into separate panels, each holding three or four columns, and these would then be bound together in a process not far from the one used today. The books were made up of folded sheets, collected into “gatherings,” and sewn onto cords running across their backs. Then wooden boards were placed on each side of the book proper, in positions corresponding to the front and back covers.

It was discovered that the cords onto which the signatures (sheets folded into pages) were sewn could be laced directly into the edges of these boards to form a more compact and durable unit. The whole volume was then covered with a sheet of leather to conceal the sewing and reinforce the hinges, according to Watson.  

There are many examples of richly decorated book covers from the early periods of bookbinding, some decorated with gems or heavy gold leaf designs. As a further embellishment, engraved gold clasps were often fitted to the edges of the book to hold it shut when not in use, Watson says. Motifs were drawn on leather, then on cardboard, and rimmed with different colours including gold, yellow, green, or red.

The Ottoman Turks and Arabs developed the craft of bookbinding into a fine art, especially for bindings of the Holy Quran. Their work had a large influence on the development of European bookbinding. It also had an effect on book decoration throughout the former Ottoman Empire.

The Chinese introduced the craft of papermaking to Europe by the 10th century CE. This new handmade material was close to parchment in weight, but could be folded, punched, and sewn with more flexibility. Strong thread was used for sewing, and silk was used to make headbands. Leather was attached to the wooden cover boards, but shaving it thin, or paring, as it is called, was still unknown, Watson says.

After the spread of paper mills throughout Europe, large sheets of paper were no longer used as a single fold or folio size but folded instead. Different sizes were made, such as two folds (a page of about nine by 12 inches), or quarto page, three folds (about six by nine inches), or octavo page, the size of an average book today, he adds.

The craft of bookbinding was transferred from the monasteries to the printer’s shop. Leather persisted as the main material used to cover books until the art of blind and gold tooling, long practiced in the East, changed things.

Europe’s royal families and aristocratic classes sponsored many skilful bookbinders, helping in the development of distinct binding styles. They ordered coats of arms, crests, and family badges to be made for their private libraries. However, only the names of those who commissioned these styles are known and not the binders who made them, according to Watson.

Revolution in bookmaking: It was not until the 15th century that the whole bookmaking process was revolutionised when Gutenberg introduced movable type in Europe, also changing binding from an individual craft to mass production.

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of binding machines had a destructive effect on hand bookbinding.

Now machines replaced hand tooling with a single rapid operation. Speed and low cost replaced quality as cheaper paper was used, and false bands were attached to a book’s backbone. In the past, leather had been glued to the backs of the signatures, but now a hollow back was used instead with tape sewing which put all the strain upon the two hinges, instead of evenly distributing it along the back, Watson says.

Recently engineer Ahmed Shawki, 26, has been doing his part to re-introduce the art of hand bookbinding to Egypt. He wrote a book entitled Dear Daisy and hand designed it in an effort to revive the spirit of hand bookbinding. “Since the book has a romantic content, I decided to bind the book in a unique way to attract people to the hand binding style once more,” Shawki said.

“The book is in the form of a long letter. It is a description of the feelings of a person who is on a journey of self-discovery. I wrote this so that when I finally met my wife I could give her this book as a present on our wedding day to help her to know me through my writing,” he said, adding that he had started writing when he was a university student, three years before he met his wife to be Noha Abdel-Wahab.  

Shawki’s idea started with his passion for the arts, and he attended a hand bookbinding course in Alexandria. It took him a long time to find a place to learn the craft as hand binding is rarely taught today. “I thought that if I learnt how to bind books this way, I could start making hand-bound copies of my own book. After attending the workshop, I started experimenting by sewing the pages from the back and ended up making a number of copies that I showed to friends,” he said.

He discovered that this took a lot of time so he decided to make every feature of the cover by hand except for the sewing, which he decided to exchange for metal clips. He made the covers out of ornamental cloth like silk or leather.

“I have not bought any cloth for my books. My mother gave me the material she used to collect as a hobby when we lived in Saudi Arabia. This type of cloth is from the 1970s, and is not so trendy nowadays. However, it is rare and even unique. I use cardboard for the covers with a plastic layer between them and the cloth so that the cloth doesn’t absorb the glue and stain,” he said.

He also uses different types of paper like coloured card for the empty pages at the end of the book for the reader’s notes and plain paper for the other pages.

To make the reader feel the romantic atmosphere, Shawki adds what he calls a “daisy jar” to every copy of his hand-bound book. This is a glass jar in which his wife puts dried flowers, old postage stamps or coins as a gift. “The jar was my wife’s idea. She used to put shells in jars for decoration at home. I liked the idea and developed it,” Shawki said, adding that he collected anything he thought could appeal to a reader’s human side. He is considering printing post cards or making handmade bookmarks, notebooks or even posters as gifts.

“I do not print my work. I copy it with a copying machine page by page. Then I start re-sizing it as it is very small, smaller than A5. I take a card and stick it to the book and the cloth after adding the end papers,” Shawki explained.

“A single book takes about 45 minutes to prepare,” Shawki said. “If I had someone to assist me, the books would be more expensive.

As a result, I prepare the books myself, which I like doing as a hobby,” Shawki added.

Shawki did not want to use ordinary type, so the books also use handwritten letters. “I want to send a message to readers that the book is like a diary or letters found in someone’s in-tray and taken away to read. This is why I chose the handwritten style and left pages empty at the end to make it look like an incomplete letter,” he said.

“Young people, especially girls, like the book, though they think of it as a notebook,” Shawki commented. His target readers includes young women from 18 to 30 years of age who are attracted to the idea of sending and receiving letters, young men who give the book to their friends or loved ones, parents who want to give it to their children, and older women who want to read something to break their daily routines.

Shawki has published two editions of his book through Al-Ahram Publishing and Distribution Agency and a third through the Alexandria Book Fair. “I sometimes distribute books in Hurghada, and I sell the book in Al-Ahram bookshops in Cairo, Alexandria, Benha and Zagazig, as well as in some private bookshops,” he said.  

Shawki is now considering binding personal messages for others or teaching people how to bind books in workshops. “I believe Dear Daisy is a project rather than a book, as it makes people interested in hand bookbinding and handmade objects like note books. I intend to go on with it,” he concluded.

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