News and more


Here is the first version of an article recently published in the Guild of Bookworkers newsletter. Feel free to reprint and distribute:



Why Buy a Handmade Journal?

By Christina Amato 

There are many reasons people do not buy handmade journals. They can be expensive. And why write in a journal when you can write on-line? Blogging is instant gratification, in a sense. And who still writes, anyway? Do they even teach kids to write anymore? And there's always "It's too nice for me to write in it." 

OK, so I'm a bookbinder, I'm automatically a little strange. Some might say my profession peaked in the 12th century. Which is perfect for me, as I've always felt a little bit like an anachronism. While I was in my twenties, and everyone else was out rollerblading in the sun, or whatever it is that young people do, my idea of a good time was to sit in my kitchen and copy out Dante's Inferno in the original archaic Italian, in foot high black letter with pen and ink.  Just for full disclosure. 

I work in a book and paper conservation lab, where we stabilize and piece together very old things with tweezers and Japanese tissue. Which, as you can imagine, is deliriously fun for me! Currently, for example, I am working on a journal from 1663. It's in pretty rough shape--the spine is kind of squashed at an angle, as if someone stepped on it. The sewing is more in less intact, though little bits of thread are hanging off, stuck to the hardened, dark red animal glue on the spine. The pages are torn and dirty. Parts are stuck together that probably were never meant to be so. It looks bad. Though, as the old conservation joke goes, it looks much better than the guy who wrote it does now. I don't really know anything about this guy, other than the fact that around 350 years ago, he kept a journal. One day he existed, and the next day he didn't. For all I know, this broken volume on my workbench is all that is left of him.

When you spend all day cleaning page after page of a book with soot sponges, and carefully trying to decide which part of a tear goes where, you get to know it. Some old manuscripts have really nice dispositions, and others are total jerks. This book is a jerk. But I can tell something about the guy who wrote in it; he was thrifty. His letters are as small as gnats, and are crowded onto each page, some crawling on top of each other. He had a lot to say, presumably. He changed his mind a lot--there are a lot of cross outs, and whole pages and sections have been ripped out, some aggressively. (Though that may have been by someone else, later on.) Handwriting was not his forte. There are large areas of smudged ink, where he dragged his hand through it, and fingerprints. He liked to doodle his signature. Some pages are much more worn than others, indicating that they have been read more. And his writing didn't lapse towards the middle of the journal. He wrote until the very end.

Again, it looks awful. But even so, people have held on to it, treasured it. And it's more or less held together for all of these years.  I can't imagine anything else this guy owned making it this long.  Your great nephew may sell off your dinette set at a yard sale after you go, but a journal is different.

So, back to the reasons people do not buy handmade journals. Yes, they can be more expensive than what you can buy at a place like Target.  And some of those factory made journals actually look pretty cool. I can promise you, though, that a handmade journal made by a good craftsperson will hold up better. Not to mention, it's something unique. I can see one of those moleskin journals ending up in the trash before a handmade journal.

And, while I work all day conserving old objects, I think the conservation of craftsmanship is equally important.  There's a reason people started worrying about conserving old, beautiful things around the time we stopped making them. The usual practice in the old days was to just rebind a book if it fell apart--now we usually do everything we can to retain the original binding because, well, people just don't make things like they used to.  There just aren't large hand binderies around anymore. What there are are factories that spit out thousands of identical books, along with car parts, paperclips, stereos... they're just another thing, another product. Not a lot of thought goes into the craftsmanship, and if something breaks quickly, more the better--they can just sell another one.  A hand binder cannot compete with this volume of production. Our work is by necessity more expensive than a factory made product. But, aside from getting a better product, when you buy a handbound book, you are helping to sustain a centuries old craft. Don't think of it as charity, either--think of it as helping to shape the sort of world that you want to live in. Personally, I want to live in a world where people still know how to make things, and where good craftsmanship is valued.

So, why write in a journal at all when you can blog? I have no problem with blogging. I think it serves a different function than keeping a journal, though. It is public, it is instant. But what is going to happen to your blog when the technology changes? You can keep updating it to a new technological platform, but for how long? And will your great nephew? And computer space is not actually infinite, or always free--where will it be kept? Write in a journal, and that's it. You don't have to worry about copying it into the next new binding structure in a couple of years. Of course, I am a raging pessimist. I imagine eventually our luck will run out, and we won't be able sustain this "modern lifestyle", and we'll lose our power sources, and end up scavenging for potable water in a post apocalyptic hellscape. Maybe we can stack up our old laptops as fortresses against the raiding hordes.  Yes, I am constantly accused of being overly cheerful. But I still have a hard time imagining all of these blogs making it through to the next 350 years. And even if they do, those human touches that come through in a physical journal just aren't there. Little things, like the small piece of quill that I found in the gutter of that journal I am working on, that connects the writing to the hand that wrote it to me, just won't exist. There are no cross-outs. All the physicality and messiness will be gone. A journal that has been touched over and over again has a sort of human quality to it, a life, that I just don't get from words on a screen.

So last, "It's too nice for me to write in it."  I actually hear this one a lot. The whole reason I make journals is so people can write in them.  And you would be surprised what you find interesting years from now. I recently found my old checkbook register from college, and it was fascinating. Many of the old journals I work on are just daily accounts of people's activities--and it's wonderful to get a glimpse into their everyday life. Misspellings are particularly prized! One guy misspelled "Harvard" on his final thesis for Harvard! What a horrible day he must have had!  A nice journal doesn't require grand, perfectly spelled thoughts. But it will carry a little piece of you into the future. Wouldn't you rather this vessel be something beautiful and unique and well made than, say, a spiral bound notebook?

The truth is, most hand binders dramatically under-price their work; actually, the same could be said for most craftspeople in general.  It is often the only way to stand even a little bit of a chance of selling anything, and even so, our work can be significantly more expensive than mass produced products. To many craftspeople, me included, our work is a labor of love. If I had the resources, everything I surrounded myself with would be made well and with love, instead of by a machine and designed to break, and I'm sure many people feel the same way.  That's not possible for most of us. Though one small thing you could do would be -- buy a handmade journal.