Since the dawn of civilization, people have increased their specialization and moved further away from the intimate understanding of the material objects they interact with daily. In recent decades this has become ever more apparent. While this specialization has made life easier and improved many of these material objects, there is something special that an understanding of how an object is constructed provides. This ‘material intelligence’ (not my term) which comes from practicing a craft is a very real form of knowledge which can greatly inform how you interact with the world around you.
While the internet has subsumed much of the content which people read, there is an experience which cannot be replicated from the reading of a physical book. The strikingly small size of the Dragon Prayer Book indicates immediately that the book’s physical traits must inform some of how it is handled and used. If the people using the book were from a religious house as evidence may indicate, then there is also a good chance that they could have been involved in the copying of religious texts and have the visceral craft knowledge of how pages and books were made. Even if a bookbinder was employed to bring the pages together, the owners of this book could have known about the process of making the thin pages and delicate lettering which fills the book.
In the interest of learning about the book and books in general, Laura and I took a bookbinding class at the North Bennett Street School. Over the two days of this class, everyone there was stepped through the construction of some simple pamphlets and books. Beginning with a little pamphlet of one gathering of four folios (sheets of paper folded in half to form two pages), a paper cover, and simply running thread through a hole at the top and bottom of the spine and tying it off. By the end of the second day, we had created a book with many gatherings, a far more gatherings, hard covers with composite board covered in paper with cloth along the spine. This looked and felt like a real book, and it was astounding. As someone who has always enjoyed collecting cloth covered hardbound books, it has changed how I view and handle the books in my home.
During one of the breaks in the class, Laura and I spoke with Amy Lapidow, the teacher, about the Dragon Prayer Book and showed some pictures from the website. She agreed the binding on the book was a little out of the scope of the 101 class, but understood more or less the type of binding. With the leather and wooden cover, metal clasps, and fancy looking hubs (the little ribs on the spine under the leather), rebinding the Dragon Prayer Book probably isn’t in my future any time soon. Despite this, my understanding of the book as an object which was made and used has been helped tremendously by just two days of work and will only grow given more practice in binding books.
There is a kind of knowledge in doing which cannot be replicated by reading about or seeing. I would recommend that people go and try and learn a craft and see what little things you will appreciate more in your daily life. For a deeper discussion on the epistemology of this ‘material intelligence’ I would suggest a recent episode of the podcast “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps” with Glenn Adamson. I am also excited for how we can continue to understand the Dragon Prayer Book in new and interesting ways, especially as an object which was interacted with by real living and breathing people.