Bookbinding in the Digital Age: an interview with Michael Greer

Michael Greer is a Bookbinder. I interviewed him to find out more about his unusual profession and his recent creation, the binary Genesis.

Avi Solomon

Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

Michael Greer

I’m a guy who loves books. For years that’s meant teaching literature both here and abroad. I like getting into the heavy stuff. I work with teenagers who understand Hobbes, and when we read the Odyssey together, we read the whole thing, not just the fantasy bits. But I also like working with my hands and that’s why being a bookbinder just seems to fit. It seems like such a rarity nowadays-the possibility to work with one’s hands. Especially to create something from start to finish. And then when that something happens to be the text of a really good book, it just works.

Avi

What happened on your trip to Morocco?

Michael

By the spring of 2007 I was finishing up 4 years teaching at an American school in Casablanca. One of my colleagues had these beautiful leather bound books on his shelves at home and he told me where I could find the binder. So for a few years I would take the train up to Rabat and drop off a few books now and again.

Just before my wife and I started packing to leave, I brought one last project to the binder. I had put together a bunch of essays and travel articles that I’d written and formatted into a proper book. I made seven copies and brought them to the binder. A week or so later I went to pick them up. By this time I was an established client so he really made them nice…all kinds of beautiful marbled papers and nice leathers. It was one thing to have another author’s book rebound, but seeing your own in full leather…well, I was hooked.

School was out so I was there at an unusual time (for me) and as I was talking to the old man who owned the shop I heard a loud pounding from behind the wall. “What’s that?” I asked. “The binder,” he said. I’d always thought he was the binder, so it kind of took me by surprise. Turns out that the actual binder worked in the basement. I’d never seen him. I asked the owner if I could come watch him work one day. The next week my wife and I showed up. The binder hadn’t been told we were coming and seemed a little at a loss at first. I asked a question, my wife translated, and he would give one or two word replies. After a few of these exchanges he got up and reached behind a bunch of old rags and pulled out an old book. For the rest of the day, he showed us the way a book was made. He also told stories about the shop and it came out he would be retiring and the shop would probably close. It was hard news. The end of something special.

That afternoon as my wife and I walked to the train, I told her I wanted to learn bookbinding and that’s what happened. After the summer, I worked at the shop for free and learned by watching and then by doing. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

Avi

Could you describe the bookbinding process?

Michael

The bookbinding process can be disturbing. It’s violent at first. You literally tear the book apart. Most older books were sewn, so you cut the thread and then pull each signature or booklet off the book. Then you sew them back together again on a sewing frame which is basically a loom for books.

With so much thread in the book, it’s fatter in back than in front, so to correct for this, the spine is glued up and rounded to take up some of the swell. After that, the book is put into a press and the spine is hammered so that the signatures bend over creating little shoulders. Essentially, you’re creating an arch. The boards act as columns. The arch of the spine works to fight gravity and keep the pages from sagging too much on the shelves.

While the glue is drying you prepare the boards. Heavy carton is cut to size and lined with newspaper on the inside which makes them warp and sort of hug the text block. It looks awful. These boards get sanded and then attached to the text block with the cords. Meanwhile, the leather is cut out. In Morocco, we had a great machine that tapered off the leather so that it would fold over the edges better, but now I do all that work by hand. The leather is pasted up and then sort of molded onto the back of the book and then the front and back covers. It’s tricky getting it folded over at the top and bottom of the spine and bookbinders pride themselves on the shape they give to these “endcaps.” The pull of the leather counteracts the pull of the newsprint and the boards end up flat.

The final task is the finishing…putting on the title with gold foil. It’s the hardest part of the job and the most stressful. You’ve got a pallet full of hot letters and one chance to place them squarely onto the back of a curved spine. I usually feel pretty awful about a book until it finally gets covered in leather. They just look so bad. But then my spirits lift and once the gold lettering is on, I’m usually feeling pretty happy again. It’s like alchemy.

Avi

What's the importance of bookbinding in a digital age?

Michael

My friend who owns several bookstores often laughs at me. “We’re in a dying trade,” he says. Too often, I have to agree with him. But when I get sick of all the information beaming at me through the computer and over the radio and tv, a book made of paper can be just the thing. It’s nice to handle something that is still unplugged.

The other thing is that so much of the digital world is actually more ephemeral than the physical world. I have ten year old computer files that I can’t read. How long will a Nook last? Last night I was reading a book by Ernie Pyle about the Second World War when my wife walked into the room. It dawned on me that she was in our bedroom, but I was watching our navy transports unload soldiers on the beaches of Sicily. I was plugged in but the book wasn’t. Then it will go back onto the shelf until someone else picks it up…ten, twenty, twelve hundred years from now.

Avi

What's the most satisfying thing about being a bookbinder? What are the challenges?

Michael

Bookbinding is one of mankind’s oldest technologies and one that still can’t be beat. I like the continuity, the fact that I learned from someone who had learned from someone…and so on. In the US, hand bookbinding as a trade has been nearly dead for many years. A few of us quixotic dreamers hang on. Still, the revolution in the last decade in on-demand publishing could create a space for us. Twenty years ago, self-publishers paid a hefty sum to print maybe 250 copies of their family history. They gave away ten and the rest went into the attic. For about the same amount of money, I can print and bind ten full leather volumes and create others on demand. The difficulty is letting people know that this kind of thing exists. When I do fairs, people often approach my table full of books with a mystified smile and say, “I didn’t know anybody did this stuff anymore.” If bookbinders can get the word out, we might be able to carve out a place for our services in the growing world of digital publishing.

Avi

How did you come up with the idea of a binary Genesis?

Michael

Initially, I just wanted to see what that river of ones and zeros would look like on the page. But then it just seemed like an idea I could wrap myself around. The bible had been translated into so many languages, why not put it in binary and bind it medieval style? I liked the irony, but I also liked what it said about the longevity of a book as a repository of information. I’ve owned three or four computers and they never made it past five years. How long will my book last?

Avi

How have people responded to the binary Genesis project? What fascinates them about it?

Michael

At the Maker Faire this year, people loved it. I always encourage people to pick up and handle my books. Like me a few years ago, many of them had never seen or handled a leather bound book, so at first they’re drawn to that. The title is in binary on the cover so they really don’t know what it is. When they open it up and see all those ones and zeros they kind of laugh. But then when I tell them it is the Book of Genesis in binary, they really seem to get it.

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