from the bindery: binding books with God

It’s possible God is a Bookbinder.

Which I conclude because I have found that everything about the process of learning to bind books has everything to do with the pursuit of truth and faith.

Here’s the beef.

So, at the North Bennet Street School, where I attended the 2-year bookbinding program (not “boobbinding,” as I’m fond of typo-ing), the tasks and skills to master were daunting. I remember the first day of school when our instructor took time to go over the whole 2-year syllabus: non-adhesive bindings, flatbacks, case bindings, onset boards, split boards, half-leather cases, clamshell boxes, rebacks, plaquettes, fine binding, research projects, etc. etc. Not surprisingly, it left me reeling with anxiety, self-doubt, and dwindling self-confidence.

(here are a few examples of curriculum bindings)

(non-adhesive coptic binding, 9.06)

(rounded and backed case binding, 9-10.06)

(half-leather case binding, 5.07)

(model of 9th century Carolingian binding bound in oak boards and full calf, 11.07--i think)

(full leather design binding model, 4.08)

Even so, it was critical to see the end goals we were working towards. Whenever we took on a new project at school, our instructor followed a similar pattern by beginning the discussion and demo by showing a completed model of the book and explaining its place in the curriculum and in the context of book structures and history. This provided important visual reference and context.

Despite the initial deluge of information and newness, the minute we got to work and focused on one thing at a time, the minute I began to feel that all was possible. We began with simple projects and skills and built on them, with each new project building upon the last, teaching something a little more complicated.

(Us getting to work!)

(Yumiko working on a repair)

(Tim marbling paper)

(Wendy sanding a board)

(Monica paring leather with a spokeshave)

(Elizabeth lining the spine of her book)

Early on, with so little experience, it was difficult to see the full importance of performing and perfecting a tiny skill. It was easy to feel discouraged when you kept drilling that hole in the wrong spot, or kept forgetting to trim your turn-ins, or dinged the recently polished edge of your French paring knife, or could only lift the cloth from the board clumsily and with painstaking slowness. Nevertheless, we kept working.

With so little experience in the beginning, I had to take my instructor’s word for it. Sometimes I’d fudge and forget something important. Only as i worked on more books and learned increasingly complex skills and structures did I begin developing enough hindsight to see how the processes that occur early on affect the binding. For instance, if one doesn’t tighten the thread consistently while sewing a textblock, the entire stability of the book may be compromised, but you can’t really see until the book is finished or when looking over an older damaged book with failed sewing. Some of the littlest things—something as little as tugging a bit on a length of linen thread, or tying a knot correctly, or applying one more paper lining—could make or break a binding. Literally.

Furthermore—and most importantly—I began to see the order of the curriculum and how certain skills were necessary to develop before it was even possible to attempt something more advanced. It you weren't proficient in handling a scalpel and straight edge, or able to distinguish grain in board, paper or cloth, or unfamiliar with the properties of the various adhesives, there was no way you would have the capacity or ability to move on to the greater complexities of leather binding or repair work. Those are very simple, basic examples, but they make the point.

As the months passed I began to see my experience at school as this phenomenal, incredibly tangible process of learning. Over the course of months I could hold my learning and progress in my hands in the form of model size books. I could hold two books—one made in September and one in December—side-by-side, and look at what I had learned. I had proof that I was learning and gaining perspective and knowledge. Even thinking of this right now it amazes me. It is a jewel of vision that I can analogize to every aspect of learning in my life right now. After so many repetitions I could actually see what our instructor had meant in direction he’d given. My fingers began to know and my eyes began to see.

I had clarity.

(here i am at school, covering my first full leather binding...with little clarity.)

But in the midst of that bit of clarity, I continued to uncover many, many more questions. And thus the cycle continues.

To learn anything, you begin with many unknowns and unfamiliarities. We always start small and simple (literally small, even, as babies.) and build bit by bit. But if you are Christina Q. Thomas, you especially want to grasp and master a task or an idea all at once. And if you don’t, you pout in frustration for a bit. This bit-by-bit concept means nothing to your impatience and impetuosity.

Until you became a bookbinder.

Bookbinding school and my continuing work has increased my comfort level with unknowns and granted me insight into this bit-by-bit learning process and the tremendous role my own creativity and willingness to delve into trial-and-error play in the process. I am learning even now the importance of taking a basic principle or rule in the trade and experimenting with it, seeing how it works for myself. Also, and Miraculously! I have become a little more patient and a little less impetuous (which is probably another huge reason why i half steered myself and was half steered into this profession).


So what does this have to do with God?

It’s like this.

So, I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some of my beliefs describe with quite a bit of order and clarity the reasons for life and being here on this Earth. The big picture. The syllabus at the beginning of a course, if you will. The big picture I fit into—and that everyone on this Earth fits into—is the simple storyline of the Plan of Salvation, or Plan of Happiness.

Knowing the big picture, however, we are left still with real life lived at a more micro kind of level. Just as at school, in life I progress bit by bit (or bid by bid...), experience by experience, developing a certain skill and then another built upon that.

When contemplating all that is required to build oneself into a truly Christlike person, it is easy to feel those same feelings I felt at the beginning of school. My weaknesses seem expansive and insurmountable. It is difficult to see progress. And on top of that, amidst the light, there is darkness and uncertainty. The gospel I live by is to me at once incredibly simple, straightforward and complex and nuanced. For all its answers, there are just as many if not more unknowns—unknowns that for some barely cause ripples in the water, and for others wreak havoc. I, for one, do not always see the importance of obedience to certain principles; I do not always know how to respond to an institutional religion; I at times long for answers to many questions revolving around the Church’s history and future.

Just as at school, there is at once anxiety and peace in the big picture. I look at it, I get a sense of direction—a goal—and I get to work.

starting small.

working steadily.

building to greater things

…….AND greater understanding and wisdom.

Understanding and clarity that come only with time, experience, faith, and hard work.

I get it.

I have felt the range of emotions towards the unknowns and the unanswerables: discouragement, frustration, anger, disillusionment, as well as delight, curiosity, and total peace in faith. For me now, the unknowns build patience in process, patience in the design of God’s teaching method—which method is, at least according to my experience, that understanding, clarity, and light come as the necessary “skills” are acquired.

Does this make sense? Have I said the same thing repeatedly in enough different ways that you know what I mean? Will you believe me now that God might just possibly be a bookbinder? Well, we know judging by this Earth, that He is a remarkably skilled craftsman of all sorts.

As usual, God sums all this up much more concisely than I in scripture. In The Book of Mormon, in 2 Nephi, Chapter 28, verse 30, God gently reminds us:

“For behold….I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have.”

Becoming a bookbinder has magnified this principle in my life, and I cling to it fiercely.

I trust God more despite doubts and times of cognitive dissonance. I understand what line upon line, precept upon precept means. I don’t see God as someone keeping us in the dark just because he can. We seem to be in the dark, because that is how learning is and that is what we chose. Because we are responsible for searching and seeking, not merely being shown. Just as at school as we were shown and then told to go and do, so it is with God. This process is the point, and perhaps it is the most important point I will ever learn as a bookbinder and a child of God.


Nancy said...

Principles of truth certainly resonate through all avenues of life.

Sue said...

true for so many things and I wonder if we live on this earth - so intricately constructed - so we have the sample and the growing knowledge of detail.

Thanks for helping me remember that I have been learning things in the last 30 years.

Mike W. said...

I remember conversing similar topics with you at work, so it's really neat to see your thoughts brought together and presented here so meticulously and artistically. Well done.

There certainly is a great deal to be learned from bookbinding! I'm grateful for having been introduced to it, albeit superficially. It has been a unique learning experience and a source of satisfaction. :)

Wendy said...

Wow, that was so awesome! Thank you so much for sharing those thoughts. I think we were drawn to bookbinding for similar reasons, especially the fact that we both get caught up in the big picture and in bookbinding we can focus down to the little details and take one step at a time. Although I have had similar thoughts and insights about the way we learned at school and in the craft in general, I would never have been able to put it down in words so thoughtfully and articulately. And I really appreciated hearing how it connects to your faith.

Oh, how I miss our long talks over paring leather... And for the record, I almost always type "boobbinding" and have to correct it!

christina q thomas said...

thank you all for comments! glad this made sense, as i've been mulling over just how to write about it for the last six or seven months. i think there is more to working with our hands than we realize, and i often lament the shifts away from this kind of work in our modern world. isn't it amazing all the different ways we can learn?

I LOVE what Wilford Woodruff said about this in 1887: "The education of the mind and the education of the body should go hand in hand. A skillful brain should be joined with a skillful hand. . . Everyone should make it a matter of pride to be a producer, and not a consumer alone. Our children should be taught to sustain themselves by their own industry and skill, and not only do this but to help sustain others."

wendy, i miss our talks so so much, too! i'd love to hear your thoughts on all this sometime, as well.

Anonymous said...

I just went to the Grandin (sp?) building yesterday and got the tour and education on book binding and printing. The whole time I kept thinking--Biddy does this! and it was a book of God and I love the whole metaphor you use about God being a book binder. I read it as saying that God is in us and we have potential to be God. Lovely and beautifully written (as usual!). Can't wait to see you in a few weeks!

Susannah said...

I agree with all the above comments. Adding to what Nancy said, this is really what our lives are about, so that we can gain experience, in whatever vocation we are engaged in, and apply those experiences to the principles of the gospel that will bring us closer to God and eventually eternity. I'm going to start thinking about the things I'm learning at work and in life in general and how they might translate to more eternal matters. It will make life and work so much more meaningful. Thanks for sharing this. xo, S

Pear said...

The process really IS the point. I like that. it's true.

Paula said...

Dearest Christina,
Your beautiful essay reminds me again that if you become a parent, by your children you'll be taught (How "King and I"-ish of me!). I love your perceptive mind and spirit.

Mom of "Q"

Paper Dragon Books said...

for the novice there is no"big picture", there is only technique,repitition,then mastery.
When the binder is in complete control of the interconnected procedures that will eventually determine the final outcome,then the binder can imagine and complete that outcome.
You are the knife , or the bonefolder..the zen binder has god.