On books and lunch hours

The sounds and bustle of lunchtime in our building’s common space fold around me as I sink into the first pages of a new book. Those first sentences can make or break that relationship, the one between writer and reader, or at least between story and reader.

The white noise din allows me to fall down between black letters on ecru paper, down into a large family home in a small Nigerian town. The story invites me in and holds me there. I revel in the words, the sense of place and character.

Before I even notice, it has won me over.

I have completely disengaged from work, from my meetings, from everything I wrote this morning, from everyone upstairs, everyone I spoke to on the phone or email. I am no longer part of my surroundings, they bleed out, blurring a few inches beyond my reach. I could be atop a cliff, surrounded by a roaring abyss. I am no longer even distinctly me. I am there in the moment, hovering, or maybe I’m part of the air, or the page.

It doesn’t matter where or who I am. I fade, too.

Every now and then, I take a bite of my lunch – leftover chicken and grilled vegetable pasta – it tastes good but doesn’t pull me away from the story.

It is a few seconds before I notice a white shirt in the hazy space before me, a presence. I look up into my friend’s face.

“Sorry to disturb you,” he begins, but I smile, close my book and tell him he didn’t and he shouldn’t be sorry. I invite him to join me. We chat for a while about the better parts of work, about people we know, and I ask him where I should run while I’m in Geneva (he used to work there). Before long, he excuses himself and heads home to meet his wife for lunch. I return to my book.

I’m not sure how much further I get before another friend pulls up a chair, sets his lunch down in a definitive manner and gets right down to the conversation. “Hi. Whatcha reading?” A different style but equally pleasurable company.

He stays until we both have to head back upstairs.

I will not get to read anymore of my book today but I can feel its essence even now, and its pull. It’s a warm, enticing yet calm feeling akin to wearing a warm but bright sweater on a cold day. I know it will stay with me the rest of the day, returning each time I turn the story over in my mind, returning when I next pick up the book.

I’m glad I had a chance to chat to two people I was happy to see. It was a pleasant lunch hour, slow, relaxed, friendly. I never used to take a lunch break if I wasn’t running or going to a yoga class. I should do this more often.

It’s good for the soul.

The Search for Blue: Writing Reflections

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I don’t know what started it, but I’d like to think it was The Lion and Blue, by Robert Vavra.

And, really, that’s what an origin story is, isn’t it?

A bit truth, a bit legend, a bit fantasy, a bit self-serving.

The truth part is that I recall my mother reading The Lion and Blue to me. I recall those beautiful, brilliant blue butterfly wings, and the sad, lonely lion. I recall hoping for the happy ending that would bring butterfly and lion back together. And I recall always feeling slightly bittersweet about how it comes together in the end.

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The rest, the part about it being the book that inspired me to be a writer, may be legend. I’m not sure, but I don’t think it matters.

It is quite possible that it did feed my love of writing poetry, though.

I would like to imagine that my poetry is borne from somewhere deep inside, somewhere that formed around the stanzas of The Lion and Blue, somewhere where I still hold the feeling I had when I first heard my mother reading it to me as I looked at the illustrations, the feeling of my spirit soaring as the words came together perfectly, one after the other.

I have the same feeling now when I write. It’s the reason I write.

Perhaps it all started with The Lion and Blue.

There were other early formative books, too. Winnie the Pooh and A. A. Milne’s poems, especially. And L’ile aux lapins by Jorg Muller, a book in French about two rabbits who escape from a rabbit factory.

My mother was always reading, often several books at a time, always buying me books, and always buying books for others, too. I’m so glad I had that as an example to follow.

From an early age, I can remember trying to hide somewhere, to become invisible with my book, so that my parents wouldn’t interrupt whatever story it was I was tumbling through breathlessly.

Who wants to iron or clean or weed when you can travel to other worlds?

It was also that I was so insecure, so shy, so self-conscious as a child that reading gave me an escape, took me out of my mind and my world and dropped me somewhere else where I didn’t need to think, where I could follow the thoughts of another. It took the focus off me.

Today I read not to escape but to enjoy.

To be inspired in my own writing.

And more than that, to feel my spirit soaring the way a magnificently crafted sentence makes it soar. There is nothing else quite like it.

I Made These: fulfilling a goal and tapping into the creative process

At the end of last year and then again a week later at the beginning of this year, I wrote about my goals for 2014.

Not resolutions, goals.

Some I have not met. But that’s the point of goals, they are something to work toward. I did not write, for example, “be it resolved that I will start running again.” Which is good, because I haven’t actually started running again. It’s a goal to do so, though, and it’s never far from my mind.

As far as the other goals go, I haven’t done too badly.

There is one in particular that I have taken on wholeheartedly, followed through, and achieved.

I wanted to try something new and fun while I was still off work. Something that I would never usually have time for, something that would seem beyond the realm of what I would usually do. And I did.

Bookbinding.

I have written about it a bit, although mostly about the trip our class took to see the rare books at Ottawa’s National Art Gallery.

Today, I’d like to write about the class itself and the books I made. There is one final class next week but, as I will be heading off to South Africa this weekend, I will be missing that one. I will finish the final project when I return, though.

Over the past several months, I have learned to design and assemble books with a precision and beauty that I never would have expected.

I have surprised myself.

Each one is different, and the three hours a week I have spent on the third floor of the Ottawa School of Art for the past 2 1/2 months have provided me with an outlet I didn’t realize I needed. An outlet for creating with my hands and an outlet for a different type of artistry than I am used to. It has been rewarding to discover that I can, that I enjoy and that, every now and then, I need to stretch beyond the art of writing.

I have learned so much, especially from our excellent, skilled and artistic teacher, but also from the other students in the class. Each one has brought a very distinct personality and style into the room and into the creative process.

It’s a bit like writing with prompts; everyone gets the same prompt but what they do with it is wonderfully diverse and unique. And each interpretation then expands all the others’ creative ideas.

I’m so glad I dedicated my time and energy to this project and I’m thrilled that I now have the skills to make a variety of books whenever the feeling strikes.

I’m also thrilled that I now have a collection of lovely books, which I made, to use for my writing:

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An Evening in the Company of Rare Books

Last Thursday evening, the members of my bookbinding course and I took a field trip to the National Gallery of Canada for a behind-the-scenes look at its rare book collection.

We arrived, signed in and made our way up to the library. I didn’t even know our art gallery had a rare book library, never mind that it was open to the public. What a treasure!

Having travelled down back corridors, up elevators and across footbridges that only reflected our faces back at us, we arrived at the main floor of the library. Beyond this vague description, I couldn’t tell you where we went or how we got there. The sense I had standing in that first room, looking at Dewey Decimal card drawers and ancient slide projectors, was one of being up in a tower that had been locked and hidden away from modernity for some decades. I  could have spent hours there, breathing in the smell of old papers.

To see the books we were there for, we climbed up a spiral staircase to the next level. They were laid out across four large reading tables, behind which the lights of Ottawa’s nighttime skyline twinkled.

Being part of an art gallery, the books in the collection all relate in some way to art; there are rare Canadian and foreign imprints, early illustrated books, Canadian bookplates and contemporary artist books, as well as notable subject collections, holdings related to Canadian artists, and those related to historians of Canadian art.

The items we were shown described everything form costume design to how to mix paint colours, some profiled specific artists, and still others explained the unique art of nineteenth century playing cards. Each of them provided a unique example of bookbinding through the ages.

Not all of these books are ancient, though those, of course, were my favourite. But they are all rare. That’s an important differentiation and one that I hadn’t actually considered before the visit. The examples of newer books took me a bit by surprise; the voluminous catalogue of Warhol artwork, for example, and a tiny volume with a furry spine.

A rich plum-coloured velvet book with directions for a production of the Portrait of Dorian Grey did, however, catch my attention. Just look at the beautiful cover and costume design sketches:

We began the tour, though, with the pièce de resistance: a 19th century hand-printed, handmade book of Geoffrey Chaucer’s works published by Kelmscott Press in 1896. I had mixed emotions when I studied Chaucer in high school, but with decades of distance and perspective, I was able to see the beauty of this item before me, a mix of my love of literature and book creation.

This was a project dreamed up and presided over by William Morris, a 19th-century designer, social reformer and writer. Only 450 copies of this book were printed and they are each worth approximately $200,000 (CDN). Although by this time period there were printing presses and machines for creating books, the beauty of these 450 volumes is that each were made entirely by hand. The drawings are exquisite.

As the British Library’s website explains, Morris aimed to revive the skills of hand printing, which mechanisation had destroyed, and restore the quality achieved by the pioneers of printing in the 15th century. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer was the triumph of the press.

Its 87 illustrations were designed by Edward Burne-Jones, a celebrated Victorian painter. His pencil drawings were painted over in Chinese white and Indian ink and then these black and white designs were transferred to wooden blocks and engraved. Finally, the engraved blocks were pressed onto the pages of the handmade paper.

There are more, interesting and worthwhile details about this project available on the British Library’s site, linked above. But I won’t go into them here as this was only one of a number of books we saw.

And because my favourite is yet to come.

There was a lovely vellum volume from 1788, a French treatise on painting in pastels. I liked this one both because of its age – that is, its history and the Old French in which it was written – and because it was bound with vellum before bookbinders had figured out how to counteract the tendency for vellum to warp the covers. The aged vellum has taken on a beautiful patina, despite the warping, so beautiful in fact that I would prefer to have it warped than covered some other way.

In later times, bookbinders working with vellum opted for what is known as a limp binding instead. It avoids the warping but, to me anyway, isn’t as nice. I didn’t take a picture but it sort of reminded me of a floppy, unfinished leather cover with a smooth, white surface.

Another French book, this a beautifully illustrated work by Octave Uzanne titled Le miroir du monde: notes et sensations de la vie pittoresque, was printed in 1888 and consisted of a text block and a separate leather cover.

Before binding was mechanized, I learned on Thursday, books were produced as text blocks (a block of pages, essentially, without a cover) and those who bought them would, if they could afford it, have a cover made. If they couldn’t afford it, they would just have a collection of text blocks, I guess.

By 1888, books were being mass-produced with covers already attached but this volume was produced without a cover, and a Japanese company created special leather covers for it after the fact. I gather this was more for reasons of artistic expression than because of process, i.e. it was a novel and beautiful way to finish this unique book.

For whatever reason, I didn’t take a picture of the cover and binding but luckily there are many examples online.

These next predominantly 19th-century books were laid out beautifully together, showing a range of astonishingly exquisite cover art:

But one among the group was different. Can you see it?

It’s a slim volume, with a plain leather cover, and no cover art. This book actually was produced before mass-market covers existed. It would have originally been a text block and the cover you see here was unique, produced individually by a binder for the owner of the original “book.”

The cover is blank because back then, books were not stored on bookshelves with their spines facing out – so no information on the spine – and because not all owners could afford to cover their books. Instead, the title and other pertinent information was printed on the first page, and sometimes was also written across the side of the book, along one of the edges where the pages are stacked. Books back then would have been piled together on a surface or kept in drawers.

This lovely little piece of history was printed in 1676 and has a pen inscription saying as much inside its inside cover.

I couldn’t stop looking through this and didn’t want to put it down. This one was my favourite.

These were the highlights of the field trip. There were also some impressive bookplates – impressive because they were old, or were designed by important Canadian artists (Group of Seven) or for important Canadian figures (John A. MacDonald, Vincent Massey).

Aside from a deep and awe-inspired appreciation for what I was looking at, the evening also inspired in me a desire to build on my bookbinding skills.

One of the original reasons I seized on the opportunity to take this course was that I would love to be able to repair old books. I know this isn’t a particularly in-demand skill and I don’t expect to one day quit my job and become a book restorer (á la The People of the Book, minus the bad and unnecessary drama – if you’ve read this book, you know what I mean). But it is a skill I would love to have.

For now, I will settle for visiting the rare books, and learning the basics of making my own.

Binding Words

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courtesy of commonswikimedia.org

I have always dreamed of owning a bookstore, or at least working in one.

I never actually thought I would, though. It’s hard to make much of a living doing something like that.

So, when the aging and slightly rotund owner of our neighbourhood bookstore suggested I take over the business from him in a few years, I didn’t really take him seriously. It was my first time in there, for one thing. He didn’t know me. It was a nice offer, a nice thing to pretend was real, but that was about it.

“I can see you belong in here,” was his line. It was a good line. I did feel like I belonged there.

It was a great little bookstore, so I kept going back. Partially because of his offer. I started to think that was what he had intentded; maybe he was just marketing his business and I was gullible. Maybe he offered it to all the book lovers who walked through his doors. Maybe that’s why everyone kept coming back. That and the books, of course.

I liked the way he hand-wrote recommendations on cards beside his favourite books. Some of them were the same books you’d find in any bookstore, but many were not. I had looked at our city library and online for some of the nicer ones but hadn’t found them anywhere.

They seemed to be special somehow, as though imbued with some kind of magic.

Of course, they weren’t. But they had a certain remarkable quality. They were beautiful, for one thing. I didn’t always have enough money to buy them, but I liked visiting them, turning them over in my hands, admiring the leather bindings, the golden lettering, the distinct and delicate fly leafs. I would be drawn to a particular one and would stand there, flipping through the pages and getting lost in the words.

Several years passed and I continued to frequent the place. The owner and I would chat, small talk mostly, and I learned he had been an English professor and owning a bookstore had been one of his dreams. But now he was getting close to retiring.

One day, about three years after that first time I walked through the doors, he beckoned to me when he saw me standing in the corner, book in hand.

“I want to show you something,” he said, motioning for me to follow him into the storage area at the back.

Sensing my hesitation, he called over his shoulder, “you’ll need to know about this if you’re going to take over from me.”

I still felt uneasy, but the promise of a future full of books propelled me onward – he probably didn’t say that to all the book loving clients – and I followed him past partially-unpacked boxes, to a doorway that yawned open.

It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. My feet were poised at the top of a spiral iron staircase leading down into a dimly lit basement. Its walls were made of stone, it looked like a catacomb and smelled of old books, must and leather.

As I started down the stairs, long shelves of books, very old books, came into view. They lined the walls on both sides of the room. In the centre of the floor, between the shelves, sat two large oak tables. They were bathed in a soft golden glow emanating from two lamps that stood upon them and they lit what looked to be antique books strewn across the tabletops.

“This is where we bind them,” he said from the far end of the room. I hadn’t noticed him there in the shadows.

“Bind what?” I thought to myself, looking around at what might have been a book lover’s paradise, but also seemed slightly eerie. We?

“Why the books, of course,” he answered, though I hadn’t spoken. “You’ll learn to do it, don’t worry.”

I furrowed my brow and nudged a manuscript of yellowed papers into the light. It seemed old – hundreds of years old. The title, in faint black script, read Categorization of the Vocabulary of our Post-Norman Tongue.

Binding ancient books?

“This is yours now. All of it.” He interrupted my thoughts with a smile I couldn’t quite read.

He crossed the room and went back up the stairs. I thought he went to get something, or maybe to check on the store.

I sat there and waited, but he never came back.

stock photo copyright Diane Rosier

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Word count: 750

Written in response to the Speakeasy at Yeah Write #146. Submissions must be 750 words or less and this week must end with the line “I sat there and waited, but he never came back,” and in some way reference a clip from Blackadder (to see the clip and full instructions, please click on the badge).