Recently I gobbled up The Journal of Dora Damage –
not a perfect book, but a rattling good read: horrible, absorbing and funny. It centres on the craft of bookbinding: the selection and preparation of materials, the lining up of letters, the tooling, the stretching and stitching, the satisfaction of production. I knew nothing of the book, nor its author, having bought in a rare purchasing response to Amazon pointing out officiously that Other People Bought This One Too, and was shocked to read that Belinda Starling, whose first novel it was, died a few years ago at the age of 34, following complications after what sounded like an ordinary enough surgical procedure. She knew, before she died, that Bloomsbury were going to publish her book, but she didn’t live to see it printed and bound. What cruelty.
The technical detail in the book brought back to me the weekend my father taught my sister and me how to make books, using a couple of prepared goat-hides of a similar blue to Dora Damage’s dust-jacket. He was the sort of man who would pull out a roll of blue goatskin from behind the hatstand as if it were as usual as a box of teabags. Like Dora, our first experiments were notebooks and albums, with home-marbled endpapers, but we glued the spines with Evo-Stik wood glue which was such powerful stuff that a small jotter would spring closed with the force of a released bulldog clip. The point of the lesson, if memory serves, was that my sister and I would be able to mend some old books for him, lining up strips of muslin over a torn endpaper, or taking a curved needle to a disintegrating quarto, but my workmanship must have been shoddy, because I can’t say I can remember being trusted to drip wood glue onto the Biblia Sacra or the copy of Master Humphrey’s Clock whose attraction baffled me.
I do enjoy books as objects, though, and appreciate their making. I still like old books, small ones, the softness of pages cut apart with a letter opener, the tender weight of a calf binding lying spine-down in your palm, the study smell, the tease of tissue paper over a frontispiece. Though books interest me, their insides and their outsides, I’m not a proper book-collector, tracing rare first editions, completing sets, stalking writers at signings, or any of that. (Well, I have stalked one or two.) Back in the days of the Irish pound, I paid four of them for a dullish-looking copy of Madame Bovary which I found in the basement of Cathach Books in Duke Street in Dublin. I liked Flaubert, and it was printed in French, which I suppose I thought I would read. Not leather-bound, certainly not a first edition, but hardbacked and illustrated, you couldn’t say fairer than four quid, and it was probably the only thing for four quid in Cathach Books that day. Now, books and puppies don’t mix, and so ultimately, sadly, the spine got ripped off in a playful frenzy one day, but as I checked it over for other damage, I noticed – incredibly, for the first time – two names inscribed on the fly leaf.
Paris October 3 1921
11 April 1960
Lennox Robinson? Did I buy (and nearly allow to be destroyed) a book of his without even noticing it? I have to look up JL Synge. John Lighton Synge was a nephew of John Millington Synge, a mathematician and physicist, with a daughter called Margaret who was known as Pegeen. Was it his book? Might have been. Is that really Lennox Robinson’s writing? I don’t know – I haven’t been able to find another sample. But the idea that Lennox Robinson might have held the book, might have sat in Paris, warming with his hands the very spine my dog tore off, working through sentence structures as I did (oops, I didn’t actually do that), gives the tattered old book more texture and interest than a calfskin binding could. And it’s the same even if the people who have held the books before weren’t members of the Abbey lot. My grandmother’s, then my mother’s batter-spattered copy of Good Housekeeping Picture Cake Making, my sister’s lurid goatskin notebook bound too tight to open, the Penguin first editions, singly sought, then placed into row upon row by my father. The book your wife wrote, but never held.
This is not a new idea, nor especially profound, but there’s a lot to be said for noticing and remembering the book as object, as well as the words that make it sing. You must have treasures, too.