John-Paul Flintoff: Why make your own books?

how to change the world

Why make your own books?

When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history
— Vint Cerf

By John-Paul Flintoff

Last week, I met a friend to brainstorm a revolutionary, ground-breaking invention that would make Gutenberg look like a chump.

My friend’s paymaster, a large publisher, wants to invent an ebook, but vastly more interesting than the conventional ebooks, with which we have all become wearily familiar. So we sat together over strong coffees, whipping up exciting ways to embed surprises in a lettered screen – while the chiefs at Google prepared to announce that all digital formats are doomed.

We’re going to lose everything, declared Google’s Vint Cerf – in news that commanded front pages wherever people still read news on paper – because we carelessly forget to keep the machinery required to read all our digital material.

I knew this already, but had somehow forgotten. Years ago, I discovered that I would never read my Masters dissertation again, because I had saved it, at the time of writing, onto a so-called (but not in fact) floppy disk – which I still own, but with no machine capable of reading it.

How did it come to this! How have we invented a world in which we need machines to read things? What’s wrong with eyeballs, or fingertips (for braille)? And what can we do about it?

The only sensible answer is to make your own physical books.

That’s right: make them. I’ve had books published, by some excellent publishers, in a variety of formats and different languages. They have done me proud, and I’m grateful. But the books that have given me the most pleasure remain the ones I made myself.

The great Victorian, William Morris, believed that a writer or designer should have a working knowledge of any medium in which he or she works, and he spent a lot of time teaching himself a wide variety of techniques.

I have tried to do the same. Since I first started folding and sewing pages together, I have made paperbacks and hardbacks, books with single or multiple signatures, perfect-bound books that are glued together, books sewn together with a variety of stitches, including Coptic, and books that used no glue and no stitching. I’ve made blank sketchbooks, bound together work in progress, and bound finished novels.

Handmade books can do things that no digital book could ever do: concertina books open out to reveal great panoramas, pop-up books leap out in three dimensions, “endless” books start again where they finish, and with cunning folds a book-maker can create “secret” pages.

And my books are better made, for the most part, than many mass-market publications: hardbacks for which we are charged a huge premium, though they are hardly more expensive to make, and no better made, than paperbacks; or books that have artfully been given ragged outer pages, as if the pages were stitched – though they are glued, and the glue will crack in due course, and the pages fall out.

A handmade book is valuable because it is a one-off, or part of a limited series. In the age of digital, it’s the easiest thing in the world to put a book “out there”, in an electronic format available to anybody around the world, in a matter of seconds. The revolutionary act is to create a one off, that nobody will ever see unless you place it in their hands.

And it needn’t be difficult. I know how to make books beautiful, but the extent to which they need to be “finished” is entirely up to me. Many of my books feel scrappy, and improvised, in the spirit of the xeroxed zines that flourished in the heyday of punk. And I love that – because with each one I make, I feel that I’m taking back control from a system that produces crap for the mass market, and teaches us to depend on machines for reading.

One of my first, and favourite formats, is a 16-sided booklet made from a single sheet of A4, with three folds and one tear. It doesn’t take long to learn. Why not come along, to one of my classes, and try?

A version of this article first appeared on The Idler’s blog

Posted: March 1, 2015

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