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Elizabeth Culliford has published 15 articles

Bookbinding Unbound

Elizabeth Culliford judges the Bodleian's annual bookbinding competition
Elizabeth Culliford on Tuesday 26th February 2013
Photograph: robfos

The skill of bookbinding should have been judged in a poky workshop, possibly underground, with monk-like figures winding paper and ribbon around the place. People should have been speaking in whispers, and there should have been a bit of secrecy about what I thought was a lost art. But standing in a meeting room on the industrial estate in Osney Mead, with the table surfaces covered with competition entries from across the world, the art didn’t seem so lost.

The Designer Bookbinders International Bookbinding Competition 2013, in association with the Bodleian Libraries and Mark Getty, is in its second year. The brief this time was to choose any edition of Shakespeare’s work in any language and bind it using any materials or structures that the entrants wished – one unsuccessful applicant chose razor blades. The European Tour of selected entries will travel through London, Belgium, Estonia, Czech Republic, Germany, Madrid and Florence, and the prize is £10,000 for the winner. Not too shabby.

Cover art fills the windows of Blackwell’s Art and Poster shop, with the little red mouth and dripping Great Gatsby eye suspended over Tintin prints. But it is more likely found lining the shelves of Urban Outfitters than of Waterstones, seen as novelty art rather than a necessity of book sales.

When Allen Lane stood at the train station with nothing to read, an imaginary light bulb appeared over his head. He decided to found Penguin books – books that would be cheap and easy to travel with, books with no pictures and particularly no ‘bosoms and bottoms’ on the covers. His paperbacks were simply colour-coded: green to indicate crime stories and orange for other fiction.

Lane’s books were part of the movement towards e-readers, whipped out of pockets on trains and omitting cover art to begin the text on page one. Every book looks the same on an e-reader, cased in the same patterned sleeve bought from Amazon. Readers of Mummy-porn didn’t have to rip the front cover off the books before whipping them out on the tube because so many had their encounters with Mr Grey through their Kindles.

Digital reading means that the physical book no longer needs binding, and so the little square on Amazon becomes a signifier divorced from the point of sale. Part of the skill of book binding, like painting miniatures or cake decoration, is working within a constricted space, but the internet undermines this challenge with its unlimited room for hyperlinks, reviews and galleries of images. Cover art and book binding has become a luxury, one that I thought would have been shafted along with talents like making samplers and calligraphy.

But it turns out that hundreds of people are still busily crafting away. Bookbinders in Greece are sculpting metal whirlwinds on top of the text of The Tempest, while in Germany they are producing collections of his sonnets with rainbow pages that look like the Guinness Book of World Records.

There were felt pockets and gold beads, treasure chests covered in shells and boxes filled with trees, a briefcase with ‘Up Man Utd’ scrawled on the side, Chinese boxes and a wacky bust of Shakespeare with ten tiny books inside his chest.

One looked like a huge cheese wheel of Shakespearean texts and another is built from metal with hinges, casing parchment pages of a French Antoine et Cleopatra. One Titus Andronicus, with a strong smell of paint, had a bare chested woman on smack bang in the middle of the cover that would probably have offended Allen Lane.

Proverbs suggest that judging books by their cover is the easy way out, but two hours sifting through a shortlist to choose the winner of the student prize says otherwise. Some looked like they could have been bought in Marbella gift shops, others could have given the Book of Kells a run for its money, and there was everything in between. A rose by any other name, maybe, but a book in any other cover, no.

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