This continues a new category of posts: Guest columns where friends and readers share how technology is reshaping their hobby – basket weaving, rugby – whatever.
This time it is my good friend and fellow blogger Jason Busch, author of Spend Matters.
“When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I tried to escape the commercial leanings of the place, even though business was exactly where I knew that I would ultimately end up. It mattered to me to find a hobby that was not only a bit esoteric – some might even say that was truly odd – but something that I might find selfish pleasure and escape in. As both a literary sort and lover of antiquity, I somehow stumbled upon collecting older books and manuscripts (16th-18th century, primarily). Yet someone of my age and means – I was paying my own way through university – could not afford to buy antiquarian works in anything but wretched condition.
Given the number of crumbling old works piling up on my desk and bookshelves, I thought it might be prudent to actually learn to fix them. Using the Rare Book Library at Penn and early, dial-up Internet at the time to get online and read campus and other university chat groups, I maneuvered my way up to Cambridge, MA. I was lucky to find Bob Marshall at Harvard Book and Binding Service, an antiquarian bookbinder who let me apprentice to him to learn the skilful art of book restoration and binding. After spending previous summers and part-time internships working in a corporate IT department and for a merchant banker, I decided to spend the time between my junior and senior years volunteering as an apprentice bookbinder.
Bob taught me what is termed in the trade "rebacking". Rebacking involves skillfully lifting up the leather on a book's covers, lifting and preserving as much of the leather as possible on the the spine and then slipping in a new piece of prepared and died leather underneath both the covers and over the spine and then executing a series of folds, bends and related maneuvers to put everything into place. The tools and supplies one needs are easy to procure compared to a few decades or a couple of centuries ago (you can get them from this bindery among others), but the skill set has become rarer.
I destroyed a dozen or so covers and books before getting it right. A "skiving" blade to pare leather and lift the leather off of the covers and book glue are the only two critical items that you need to start with. And the end result should, if properly executed even with these limited items, should be nearly transparent to the untrained collecting eye, looking very much like the original binding. I later "graduated" to creating blank books, full leather bindings, three quarter and half leather and marbled paper bindings, and even a bit of sewing for blank books
That fall, when I returned to campus with my new skill set, I was able to locate an affordable book for sale from probably the most famous printer of the 16th century if not in history (besides Gutenberg), Aldus Manutius. Manutius founded the Aldine press, a book printing office known for perfectly set and highly readable italic type as well as the introduction of smaller book formats, easily transportable relative to expensive, larger coffee-table sized books that made up nearly all existing book runs to that time. I found this book in the fall of 1996 based on the online recommendation of a teacher, the head of the rare book collection at Penn, who referred me to the website of a dealer in Philadelphia. After then reading the book seller’s simple web page and confirming the details of the Aldine book in question, I drove across town to buy the book, which in its current condition was falling out of its covers.
A few painstaking days later, I had restored the 16th century book and its contemporary leather binding to near perfect condition. Over the years, I estimate I have restored over 400 books - some for others, many for myself. Even though today I can afford to collect books in better condition, the restored Aldus occupies the choice position in my locked rare book cabinet (3rd from left in bottom row in photo below)
Without the early Internet and a predecessor to the social networking approaches of today, I never would have located this book, let alone have discovered a path to a lifetime hobby and curiosity. Perhaps the largest irony in my pursuit of bookbinding and book collecting is that the very medium that enabled and emboldened my early discovery of the hobby is the very one that could ultimately marginalize the printed word forever. “