A collection doesn’t have to be based around a particular author or subject matter, books themselves can be things of beauty and many collections are assembled because the books are presented as pieces of art. Art and literature have been closely linked for centuries, and artists can ply their trade on the cover, the binding and even the edges of the pages.
The binding of a book describes the type of material which is used to make the upper (front) and lower (back) covers. The bookbinder’s job is very functional in that they must cover the book in some type of material for the protection of the book block, but some binders take on this task with such a creative gusto that collectors are attracted to their bindings above all else. Books bound by some famous bookbinders are particularly collectible.
Joseph Zaehnsdorf was a 19th century bookbinder from Budapest who founded his own binding firm in London. Zaehnsdorf won awards and critical acclaim throughout Europe.
Robert Riviere’s Bayntun-Riviere bindery dates back to 1829 when he and George Bayntun founded a deliberately old-fashioned bindery where books were bound by hand. The business still exists and is family owned. They still bind all their books by hand and boast the world’s most extensive collection of hand tools and blocks (the pieces of metal with engraved designs for book covers used in the printing process).
Cedric Chivers set up one of the largest and most famous bookbinderies in the world with firms and employees in England and, by the early 20th century, New York City as well. Chivers’ firm was most famous for experiments with vellum and the eventual discovery of the vellucent process. This process applied decoration to a book cover’s surface and then overlaid a sheet of transparent thin vellum that provided a beautiful glaze-like appearance and a protective barrier.
The edges of a book are often ignored when it comes to added decoration. Sometimes gilt or stain is applied or perhaps the edges are left uncut for a more rustic feel but rarely is more thought given to the lowly edge. That was until around the 16th century when an Italian artist named Cesare Vecellio (cousin of celebrated Renaissance painter Titian) began to use the fore-edge of books as a canvas.
The idea caught on and artists began to improve on Vecellio’s techniques discovering that if one painted on the slight inner edges of the pages, and then gilded or marbled the outside page edges, the scene would be undetectable when the book was closed, and only reveal itself when the pages were fanned slightly, creating a disappearing, re-appearing masterpiece.
Fore-edge painting, as this is called, is a rarely used technique but there are a few fore-edge painters still practicing including UK artist Martin Frost.
Paper engineering is the act of folding, gluing and cutting paper to create a book which displays its text and imagery in a unique way. One of the most common tasks of a paper engineer is creating pop-ups and moveables. In these cases, the designer creates three dimensional images that move off the page as the book opens or as pull tabs are used.
Another fine example of paper engineering is when the book’s author/designer cuts out sections of the book’s leaves, cover or even entire text block to add to the overall feel of the book. This process is called die-cutting and one of the most stunning examples of this is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. Foer created Tree of Codes by cutting pieces of text from his favourite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, to create a new story out of the existing text. A more typical example of die-cuts involve cut out shapes in the front cover to reveal an interior page such as with this copy of I by Stephen Dixon.
Some books simply just have beautiful covers or dust jackets, and it’s very worthy to collect books for those reasons alone. This is a huge category of collecting – you could favour beautiful cloth cover designs, books with attractive dust wrappers or paperbacks (think of the early Penguin books) with memorable artwork.
Cover art may not be the most ‘literary’ of collecting criteria but you must collect what you love. Whether you like the colorful designs of 1950s’ science fiction, vintage dames of pulp mysteries, beautiful embroidered covers, gilt-embossed covers, post-modern abstract designs, the work a single illustrator or clever use of photography, there is a huge array of cover art to choose from.