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Treasure Bindings: What Books Should We Cherish?

by Syl Schulze

Busy Mind Bindery is a blog dedicated to providing instructional tutorials on book-binding while inviting readers to think about themselves and the world around them.

I am breaking my rules with this week’s post. This week should have been a binding tutorial. I even had one planned- Coptic Binding. But, Coptic binding is new to me, and in taking photos for the tutorial I became frustrated with the binding process. The best lesson for a book binder is that when you get frustrated, put the book down. So look forward to a Coptic binding tutorial in the future, once I can approach the book with a fresh attitude.

In the meantime, I wanted to delve into another part of medieval book history, the treasure binding. Treasure bindings are books which have covers encrusted with precious metals and jewels. They were most commonly on liturgical texts, like books of gospels.

Treasure bindings combined wood work and metal work to create ornately designed covers for those who could afford them (which were certainly few). I would like to replicate a medieval treasure binding some day, but that would require a bit more training that may not be easily self-taught, so expect it to take a few years.

Because these intricate pieces of art have managed to last, it makes me think about books and what value they had in the past, an idea I just grazed over last week. The archaeological examples of books and their bindings that are housed in museums have found their ways there because they were thought to have some kind of historical or anthropological value to society.The most intact examples of books we have now are often of a religious origin. But what happened to the books that were not valued? Tax records and trade logs and journals and such. Even if they were not deemed important then, they could certainly show us in 2018 insights into what life was like in the middle ages. 

What type of authority decided what books were important to save and which were not? In the case of the middle ages, it seems like it was the church. Who decides now? What books do we value modernly? I suppose this could be answered in observing what texts have survived for hundreds of years and what texts did not. I think of the classical texts, like the work of Sophocles and Homer, which have lasted since before the middle ages. Then there is also the literary canon, the books deemed important for academic study (which range from ancient Greek texts to the 20th Century). Why was it so important for me to read books like Frankenstein or The Great Gatsby? What about texts in the literary canon elevates them above common literature?

Along with the authority telling us what we should read, who decides what we shouldn’t read, what doesn’t deserve to be saved? For some reason I can only think of the lists of banned books. Are parents the authority? Perhaps in some way, especially if the parent has a particular sway over a child’s education. But in my experience, my school went out of its way to celebrate and encouraged the reading of commonly “banned books” Is government the authority? Not yet. Would government control over what we read become infringement on our right to free speech? Would “unimportant” books burned, Fahrenheit 451 style?

Does there need to be an authority? Don’t all books have some merit to them? (Even if their merit is to show us what not to be/do/write). What type of books do we want to leave for future human beings to find buried with our skeletons? What will these books tell them about us?

Another thing to think about is how we “save” books, modernly. Books that have merit or are popular tend to be reprinted often, or have special editions made of them. I often get surprised when in a bookstore I see copies of the Harry Potter series with drastically different covers compared to the covers of the copies my mother read to me as a child in the early 2000s. And then, with special editions, there seems to be a need to cherish them more. They are more expensive, more ornately designed, often hardcover rather than paperback. My dad used to have a copy of Alice in Wonderland that had a ribbon to keep place in the book and gold painted onto the foredge. It always felt special, like I wasn’t allowed to read it, in fear of dirtying or sullying it. Is it use or unuse that determines the longevity of a book?

If you could only save 5 books from permanent, total destruction, what would they be?


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