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various essays on, well, art and culture
Bookbinding & Conservation
ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
mostly true stories from my
more "it's all about me"
Iím at -7.13/-7.33 on The
Political Compass. Where
observations on the human condition
take a trip with me
In 1993, a full five or six years before I even thought about writing
Dreams, I made an "artist's book." The following essay was
bound into the 'book', as well as on the floppy disk in the still-functional
I've always loved books, as far back as I can remember. Even though the shock of my parents' death ended my childhood early, and left me with only fragments and dreams of my pre-teen years, I do remember reading, reading, reading. Books were part of my life, too much so for my parents, who were intelligent but uneducated, and who wondered about my fascination with almost anything written. Often I was told to put down the book and go outside to play, or turn out the light and go to sleep. Even the black & white television given to me at Christmas when I was 8 (the year my sister was born . . . I suspect my parents splurged to offset my disquiet at having a sibling at last) couldn't take the place of the books I constantly checked out of the library.
I got lost in science fiction as a youth, first as a feast for my imagination, later as an escape from the harsh realities of my world. All through high school, where the demands my teachers made on my time and intellect were modest enough to be met with a few minutes study, and even through college, where I would reward myself with a new book by a favorite author after studying hours and hours of Russian history, economics, or German. Always I would turn to science fiction as a release, maybe even as a guide to how I could bring myself through my own rebirth. It took a very long time.
I even wrote a little, now and then. Starting with a junior high school fiction class, graduating to the novel I wrote while suffering in traction in the hospital in '78. After college I thought I would try and be a writer, with my old diesel-powered IBM Model C. But struggle though I did, I knew that I needed help with my writing that I couldn't get from friends, or from the contradictory texts I could find on the subject. A gentle man, an acquaintance I knew through work, was kind enough to read some of my stories and point to the University of Iowa. "The Writerís Workshop," he said, "an old friend of mine from grad school is the head of the program."
I went to Iowa City, took a few courses. I was rejected for the Workshop by the 'old friend' because he didn't like science fiction, but was stubborn enough to get into the English MA program, where I was allowed to take some Workshop classes on the same basis as those admitted to the program. I learned a lot, and the bitter taste of rejection was replaced by the realization that the Workshop thrived on angst, and that I had had enough of that to fill my life previously and didn't need more.
I gathered together the credit hours needed to complete the degree, though I was in no particular rush to finish. And one day while looking for a signature for a change to my schedule I stumbled into the Windhover Press. Wonderful old presses and bank upon bank of lead type. I spent the next couple of semesters learning how to build a book, letter by letter, page by page, from those little bits of lead. I got a rudimentary course in sewing a book together, in pasting cloth, in terms like "text block" and "square."
Then I met Bill. He led me through the different structures, and was tolerant of my large, clumsy hands. I spent hours just watching him work, watching how he moved with a grace that I could only dimly understand, as he slipped a needle onto thread, through paper, around cord. Trimming leather to fit a corner or a hinge. Working with the hot brass tools on a design that those magic hands formed seemingly without effort. But I didn't spend all the time with him that I could, distracted by other things I thought needed doing. I squandered my time with him, not knowing what gifts I was passing up, what opportunity I allowed to slip from my hands.
But in spite of my best efforts to the contrary, he made an impression, and taught me a lot. Without quite realizing it, my hands became less clumsy, my understanding a bit brighter. I learned a few things, and came to appreciate much, much more. Somewhere in there my need for the refuge for science fiction diminished, though it was never completely left behind. Like a man who has long since recovered from an injury, but who still walks with a cane out of habit, science fiction stayed with me, occasionally coming to the fore in my interpretations of the world, in the ways that I moved from what I was to what I became.
Bill left us, in body at least. Part of his spirit I carry with me, and it surprises me sometimes, in a pleasant way. Now I am at home with paper, cloth, leather, and thread. I make and repair books for friends and clients.
The book is a mutable form, reflecting the needs, materials, and technology of the culture that produces it. Broadly speaking, a "book" is any self-contained information delivery system. And any number of 'book artists' have taken this broadly-defined term to extremes, some more interesting than others.
For me, the book is a codex, something that you can hold in your hand and read. From the earliest memories of my science fiction saturated youth, I remember books becoming obsolete in the future, replaced by one dream or another of "readers," "scanners," or even embedded text files linked directly to the brain. Some say ours is a post-literate culture, with all the books-on-tape, video, and interactive media technology. I think I read somewhere recently that Sony (or Toshiba or Panasonic or someone) had finally come up with a hand-held, book-sized computer screen that can accommodate a large number of books on CD ROM. Maybe the future is here.
Maybe. Lord knows that I would be lost without a computer for all my writing, revisions, and play. The floppy drive that is in this book was taken from my old computer (my first computer) when a friend installed a hard drive. It is, in many ways, part of my history, part of my time at Iowa, and all the changing that I did there.
So, in a bit of whimsy, I've decided to add my part to the extremes of "book art." Consider this a transition artifact, a melding of two technologies, for fun. Black & white, yes and no, on and off. The stuff of dreams.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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