Brain Pickings

How a Book is Made: AD 400 vs. 1947 vs. 1961 vs. 2011

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A brief history of the bound page and our evolving collective narrative about its craftsmanship.

I love books, their past and their future. Yet, while ubiquitous and commodified, books and how they come to be remains an enigma for most of us. No longer. From Discovery comes this 5-minute microdocumentary on how books are made:

Compare this to how illuminated manuscripts were made, painstakingly written and decorated by hand and coveted as some of the most precious objects produced in the Middle Ages:

Fast-forward to 1947 with a short film on making books:

…and then this 1961 documentary on bookbinding:

Americans at work, in an art that is the preservation of all arts: The making of books. These men are masters of their tools, from the most primitive instruments to the latest equipments of the machine age. With other craftsmen, these are the people who make the pen mightier than the sword.”

While James Gleick might be right that we’ve come to fetishize books, it’s hard to ignore the palpable change in our collective narrative on books and the value we place in their making, from the romanticized work of craftsmanship to the roboticized industrial process narrated by a lady with an appropriately robotic voice.

For a richer celebration of the vanishing craft of traditional bookbinding, you won’t go wrong with Lark’s 500 Handmade Books: Inspiring Interpretations of a Timeless Form.

UPDATE 11/2011: Books: A Living History is a fantastic new book from the J. Paul Getty Museum, exploring the story of how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented. Highly recommended.

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