Books and Cats (Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage)

Cats got their literary start in the scriptoriums of medieval monasteries.  This relationship can be traced back to an 8th or 9th century poem, Pangur Ban (which means white cat).   Supposedly written by an Irish Benedictine monk who worked in the scriptorium of Reichenau Abbey, a German abbey on an island of the same name, the author compares his scholarly pursuits with the cat’s activities of chasing mice.

“I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.”

That monks and cats formed close bonds should come as no surprise.  Mice and rats lived in the scriptoriums feasting on the precious, hand-copied manuscripts.  Cats, on the other hand, feasted on the rodents.  Scriptoriums were also solitary places, so this companionship between kitties and monks made a whole lot of sense even though monks ran the risk of kitties stepping in the ink jars and walking across the manuscript leaving their paw prints.  Proof of ink-soaked paws are shown in the illustration (right), a medieval manuscript that a researcher recently discovered when going through manuscripts in Dubrovnik, Croatia.     This habit exists to this day and age:  cats now walk across the computer keyboard.

Many 20th century writers turned to cats as their favorite muse.  Ernest Hemingway was famous for his numerous polydactyl cats, the descendants of which exist to this day at his house/museum in Florida.  Poets William Carlos Williams and Randall Jarrell (“The cat’s asleep; I whisper “kitten” Till he stirs a little and begins to purr–) kept cats,  as did the existentialists, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.  (It looks like the kitty is dictating to Sartre the copy of Being and Nothingness, which Sartre claimed to have authored).   The beat writer, Jack Kerouac, adored his ginger Persian, “Tyke,” and compared the death of Tyke to the death of his little brother.   William Burroughs had cats all his life and seemed to love them as much as he loved illicit drugs.

Mark Twain qualifies as perhaps the most famous writer/cat-lover.    He considered cats superior to humans (“If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”  – Notebook, 1894) and owned cats all his life.

Cats even played a role in the writing of his classic, “Huck Finn.”  Twain began writing the novel in the summer of 1876 in a small study filled with cats, in Elmira, New York.  

A 1905 Washington Post article described Twain’s huge bed, where he spent a good deal of time writing.  The reporter enumerates the various items on the bed;  the books, writing materials, clothes and numerous other objects (“enough to furnish a Harlem flat”).

The reporter continues:    “He looks quite happy rising out of the mass, and over all prowls a huge black cat of a very unhappy disposition.  She snaps, snarls and claws and bites, and Mark Twain takes his turn with the rest;  when she gets tired of tearing up manuscripts, she scratches him and he bears with a patience wonderful to behold.”  –interview subtitled “Mark Twain’s Bed,” Washington Post, March 26, 1905, page F12

The most absurd thing in life is how much pleasure I get from TeddyBoy (my cat pictured in top photo).  The second most absurd thing is how I lay the burden of muse on TeddyBoy’s furry shoulders, and how well he seems to bear it with nary a care in the world.









By Hand

Enchantment comes in many forms but rarely when we expect it.  So when I signed up for a two day course in making clam shell boxes at the Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding Studio in Winchester, Virginia, I anticipated a detailed workshop on the finer points of box-making.  One box would have a curved spine, a more complicated structure.

cat tail bindery photo
Cat Tail Bindery

Clam shell boxes, are boxes most often used to house rare, fragile, or valuable books, or loose papers.  Each box is custom made and the parts of each box must be cut precisely by hand, and measured multiple times before cuts are made. Pasting is done by hand and at each stage of the structure, several things can go wrong.  As often as not, your eye is the best guide.

We arrived for our two-day workshop on a warm October day.   We walked on a small bridge over a Koi pond and entered a large, light-filled, high-ceilinged studio in the Virginia countryside.    We listened to the music of Bach while a gentle breeze wafted through our space.

We worked in a space full of tools and books, handmade paper, and rolls of book cloth with a dedicated teacher who has restored General Sherman’s battle plans, books from George Washington’s Library, the White House, and Ford’s Theatre.   Our activities were over-seen by Molly, the cat, and Bailey, the black lab.

photo of Molly the bindery cat
Molly, the bindery cat

We left the digital world behind and entered a world where things are done by hand and we could  sit back and admire our work at each step of the way.

When I make a book, or a box to hold that book by hand, I feel a connection to communities from hundreds of years ago:  To monks in monastery  libraries who labored by candlelight; to book artisans in small shops along the Grand Canal in Venice; and to palace libraries that exist to this day.  Yes, the materials have changed over hundreds of years, but the techniques are the same and many of the tools are similar.  And isn’t that one definition of enchantment–to be part of a grand community of artists and artisans, going back hundreds of years?





The Lowly Pencil (which may not be so lowly after all)

picture of pencilsI’ve always loved pencils. Turns out that I’m not alone.  Da Vinci made some of his sketches with pencils, General Grant sketched out his battle plans in pencil, and Hemingway often made his notes with cedar pencils.  But nothing can compare to John Steinbeck who supposedly began each day with 24 sharpened pencils (and a pencil sharpner) and used 300 pencils to complete East of Eden.

The modern pencil got its start in the middle ages by chance.  A fierce storm in the Lake District of England uprooted a tree and shepherds discovered a strange black substance hanging on its roots.  The goop was useful in marking their sheep and writing on paper.  The name of the substance:  Graphite…and every country soon wanted it.  (Up to this time, metal styluses were used with a mixture of lead and other substances, but these lead-based “pencils” made a faint mark, dirtied the hand, and required much pressure).

In America, Henry David Thoreau’s family made the first good pencil—which was praised by artists, and could cost as much as 25 cents or $8 today.   After graduating from Harvard, Thoreau started working in his father’s pencil factory where he made significant technological innovations in the pencil.  This included inventing a new grinding mill machine to improve the graphite and figuring a way to inject lead directly into the hollowed-out pencil.

Today, the world’s largest manufacturer of pencils, Dixon Ticonderoga, produces 1 billion of the No. 2 yellow pencils each year.

It’s a good thing that Dixon Ticonderoga produces this many pencils, because here’s a little known secret about the pencil. The jottings made by pencil outlast those made by the ball point pen.

I have a friend who is a paper conservator at one of the world’s leading libraries.  Normally, she restores historical manuscripts from past centuries where iron gall ink and the quill pen were used for jottings and sketches.  (Here’s the link to my piece on iron gall ink on my web site:

But she recently turned her attention to the lab notes of a Nobel winning scientist made some 45-50 years ago with a ball point pen. And what a headache.  The ball point pen ink bled, throughout the paper over time; red ink was even more of nightmare.  The bleeding also meant that certain notations faded.  Not all pens make this kind of mess.  Sharpies, so far, cause less bleeding.   But her writing instrument of choice for lab notes:  The No. 2 pencil, she says.  The notes made by the pencil will last much longer than those made by the ball point pen.

After typing this blog piece on my computer, I printed it out, and pencil in hand, made my edits.  Of course I used a yellow, No 2 pencil.

Only in Venice

Venice books
Much of the material for this blog piece comes from the book, “Bound in Venice.”

If you traveled back in time to Venice in the latter half of the 1400’s, you would have encountered dozens and dozens of bookshops and printers. An unusual, almost revolutionary sight indeed. Because within two or three decades, “publishing” had gone from monks painstakingly copying a miniscule number manuscripts, to a mechanical mechanism that published thousands of books.

Gutenberg may have invented the printing press and moveable type in Germany, but it was the city of Venice that rocked when it came to publishing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Without Venice, Gutenberg’s invention might have languished for years.

During this time, half the books in all of Europe were printed in this sea side city. Venice publishers printed the first Talmud, the first Koran, the first book in Greek and the second Bible in vernacular (Italian). They revolutionized punctuation, more or less invented the paper-back, printed the first best-seller (it sold 100,00 copies, an impressive figure even in this day and age), the first printed text of cosmetology, and some of the first medical texts.

The list continues: the first book on chocolate, and the first song books with musical notes (a challenging task for the printer). Of course, no publishing mecca would be complete without the first printed porn book, Salacious sonnets sonetti lussuriosi, by Pietro Aretino. The author was known to remark that the women in Venice were so beautiful, that they made him forget his male lover.

While the rest of Europe was slogging around in pig muck and ignorance (most of the population couldn’t read), a quarter of the male population between the ages of 6 and 15 in Venice attended school and a sophisticated bunch of citizens treasured some of the most beautiful books ever printed. Intellectuals met in Venice bookstores to discuss the issues of the day.

Why was Venice the publishing capitol of the civilized world during this time? Venice was one the three biggest cities (Naples and Paris were the other two) in Europe with a population of over 150,000. Alpine streams gushed with water, making paper production possible—a task that needs enormous amounts of water. The city had literate citizens, and was at the center of trading routes between Europe and the Middle East which meant they had plenty of capital.

Venice had the three characteristics necessary for becoming the information capitol of the then world: Industrialization, globalization, and marketing. Venice’s importance rivals the importance of today’s information giants: Google, Facebook, Apple (all who are located in one place, California’s “Silicon Valley”) and Microsoft.

Finally, the German city of Mainz (where Gutenberg lived and made his inventions) was sacked in 1462, driving many printers and punch cutters into exile and they settled in Venice, a place very hospitable to the printing trade and in need of their skills.

The publishing period between 1450 and 1501 (Gutenberg’s first Bible was printed in 1452) is known as the “incunabula,” Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle. It is an arbitrary date, but it was during this transition period—from hand-written manuscripts to printed words—that many innovations took place. The inclusion of title pages, pagination, the author’s name, colophons (name, date and place of publishing), the printer’s mark, and indexing, none of which were present in manuscripts. All these characteristics are still present in today’s printed books.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Venice lost its coveted position of being the center of trading routes, as the British, the Spaniards, and French took the lead in discovering new worlds. Trade routes shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean—the route to North America.

The Catholic Church, always a stickler for censorship decided that Venice, which had been fairly independent, should bear the brunt of censorship. Northern Europe, where the Protestant reformation took place, was protected from the Roman Inquisition, and a free press resulted. So publishers moved up north.

By the middle of the 16th century the book burning had begun in Venice. First came the bonfires of Protestant books and then the burning of all kinds of books. If the publishers were smart they wisely disappeared before the bonfires. Rome produced an index of condemned books which had to be strictly followed. The number of printing shops greatly declined. And the golden age of Venetian printing became history.

It’s become a truism to say that, “Venice was the Silicon Valley of publishing.” But that’s backwards. “Silicon Valley is the Venice of (internet) publishing.”

A Book Bindery in Cuba—Ediciones Vigia

Without paper, it’s tough to make a book. Before Gutenberg’s press, sheepskin and calf-skin were used to make parchment and vellum on which monks painstakingly crafted manuscripts—a process that could take up to a year or more.

Shelves of hand-made books at the Ediciones Vigia
Shelves of hand-made books at the Ediciones Vigia

Which brings us to Cuba. Since the Cuban revolution (1953-1959), consumer goods, including paper, have been in short supply. Paper is a luxury item and you can’t waste paper on a book! (The Island has periodic toilet paper shortages.)

Nonetheless, in 1985, Ediciones Vigia (which means, Watchtower Editions), an independent book bindery collective, was established in Matanzas, situated on a bay of the same name, some fifty miles from Havana. The collective is housed in an old renovated colonial house on Watchtower Square which overlooks the San Juan River. A friend who recently visited Cuba brought back a book for me from the bindery.

Despite the paucity of paper, this book collective makes beautiful and artistic books using a wide variety of found and repurposed materials: craft and copier paper, crayons, yarn, leaves, cloth, wood scraps and items donated by international visitors. In the early days of the bindery, artists recycled the brown paper used in butcher shops, upon which to craft and illustrate books.  The bindery uses only two mechanical devices: a borrowed mimeograph machine and a typewriter. As a result, the artists and writers use their hands and imagination to craft these beautiful books. The collective makes a limited run (a maximum of 200 copies) of each book.

Purchased books from the Ediciones Vigia
Purchased books from the Ediciones Vigia (photo on the right shows the trademark on the back of the books)

Ediciones Vigía concentrates on printing poetry, short stories, literary criticism, and children’s literature. Some of the texts are original, while others are existing works by famous writers, such as the poems by Emily Dickenson or Jorge Luis Borges.

The British Museum and the Library of Congress both own books made by the Collective. You can currently only buy these sought-after books at the bindery itself. No stores sell them–not even in Havana. Nor can the books be purchased by mail or on the Internet (they have no web site).

You will have to take a journey. You must fly to Havana, and hire a car and driver and make the 50 mile trip to a colonial house perched on the bank of the San Juan River. Once there, you will enter a space with high ceilings, shelves of handmade books, and a couple of rocking chairs. And your book will be wrapped in plain paper when you leave.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “I cannot live without books.”It seems, some Cuban book artists echo his sentiments.

Do We Still Need Wedding Albums?

wed album 2
Wedding album with portfolio.

With a divorce rate that hovers around 50 percent, an increasing trend of “living together,” and digital photos on all kinds of devices, I sometimes wonder if we still need the wedding album, where printed photos are affixed to creamy white pages of thick card stock.

But electronic devices become quickly outdated, digital photos easily lost—and besides there are sentimental reasons for having real photos.

I made this wedding album for a couple who had been married 30 years and didn’t like their previous cheesy album. They didn’t want a typical wedding album, which I took to mean one decorated with hearts, roses, chirping birds, and pink ribbons flowing hither and yon. Fortunately for them, I don’t like the typical wedding photo album either.

The wife is an artist herself and chose the paper, a handmade marbled design. We decided that gray suede would look best on the spine, complimenting the greens and blues in the marble paper. Most the binding I do, is an exposed binding…this means you can see how the book is bound, unlike your typical book where the binding is hidden.

wed album 6
Portfolio on top of wedding album.

I also made an accordion portfolio for 4 by 6 inch photos. Often, people want to keep extra photos handy.

They were very pleased with the final album as was I. And I think when guests come visit and see this album on the coffee table they’ll want to thumb through it and look at the photos.

And can you really imagine a house guest or the couple thumbing through a cold hard, digital device Because, let’s face it, a photo album invites you to turn the pages and stare at the photos and wonder about the story behind the pictures.

My grandparent’s wedding day, left, and my parent’s wedding day, right.

Here is the wedding photo of my paternal grandparents who married sometime in the second decade of the 20th century, and my parents, who married in the 1940’s. My grandparents were married over 50 years and upon my grandmother’s death my grandfather remarried. My parents divorced after some 20 years of marriage and each remarried again.

 “all marriages are crap shoots.”

A male friend (who is in a 30 plus year rewarding marriage) once said, that “all marriages are crap shoots.” He’s right.

Yet, yet, I want a paper photo of family members who decided to play the odds in the relationship craps game, and got married.

Although the marriage may not last, the paper photo most likely will.