Book Smarts

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The closest that Julie Wieringa ever comes to actually touching the instruction manuals she writes for Cisco Systems in Seattle is when she presses the send button to transmit her copy. But on her own time, Wieringa is often wrist deep in glue, cutting and folding paper or stitching the binding for one of the handcrafted journals she makes. "I don't get to touch the product I make at work, but when I make a book, I can pick it up, open the cover and see beautiful creamy pages begging to be written on," she says. "It even smells different."

The urge to sniff, snip and touch has led Wieringa and thousands of others, the majority of them women, to the craft of creating books by hand. It may seem surprising that this new passion for book arts, as the pursuit is called, has developed at a time when the paperless electronic age would seem to render bookmaking obsolete. But enthusiasts believe that people are yearning to create something they can hold in a world of fleeting e-mail and instant messages. Bookmaking also gives a good return on investment. "You can get good at making books quickly," says Sarah Bernbach, a student at the Center for Book Arts in New York City. "You don't have to come in with some genius concept; you can still make something beautiful. The form is not intimidating."

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While bookmaking has been around for centuries, the dazzling variety of books that are now being produced don't look anything like the latest Stephen King sitting on your bookshelf. They are unconventional works that straddle the line between books and art. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are traditionally bound, while others are scrolls wrapped with string or leather twine. One-of-a-kind works totally redefine the concept of what a book is. Chicago bookmaker Miriam Centeno's whimsical creation is in the shape of "a little old lady's" pocketbook that, when completed, will store 10 miniature volumes. A paper key holder contains a story on Sherlock Holmes; an eyeglass case holds a tale about Benjamin Franklin. "Every object in the purse is a story based on a character [the lady] wants to be," Centeno says. She calls the purse Ramona Caballero: A Coming Forth by Day, in honor of her grandmother who never learned to read.

The latest trend is "altered books," volumes that have been gutted, painted and redesigned as art pieces. "All of these books have the ooh-ah factor," says Bonnie Thompson Norman, a Seattle letterpress printer who teaches her students, among other skills, how to make journals encased in handmade boxes. "They have elements of surprise and discovery, and the person holding the book is involved with it."

Statistics are hard to come by, but book arts have zoomed up the chart of popular crafts. Rubber-stamp and paper stores from Oregon to Maine are filling their bookmaking workshops and charging as much as $250 for a weekend class. Book-arts centers have waiting lists of people clamoring for instruction in everything from traditional bookbinding, papermaking and altered-book design to more elaborate techniques for intricate interpretations of the written word that literally spring off the page.

"Our classes are already full, and we've had the information out there for only three weeks," says Marcia Moore, co-founder of the Los Angeles Book Arts Center, which opened its doors in September with a class called "22 Ways to Fold an Accordion Book." Says Moore: "People used to make books in obscurity. Now there is a huge, growing movement of artists and hobbyists." Across the country, the 19-year-old Minnesota Center for Book Arts offers 115 courses for adults and 60 for families. More than 2,000 adults are expected to register for classes by the end of the year, compared with 1,200 for all of 2001; and nearly 10,000 children — some as young as 3--will participate in the center's school program this year. "People from every walk of life come here," says Peggy Korsmo-Kennon, the center's executive director. "The thread that binds them is an interest in books and an understanding that books can be the vehicle for incredible creativity and expression."

Part of the fun for hobbyists who are discovering their inner bookmaker is the hunt for materials, which leads them to flea markets, old attics and, of course, the Internet. Holly Dye, an elementary school teacher in Simi Valley, Calif., was thrilled when she found a string of 108 Buddhist beads on eBay that she could weave through the binding of the altered book she is making about the Day of the Dead. "Each one is actually a hand-carved skull made from bone, intricately detailed and the size of a breath mint," says Dye.

Increasingly, artists from other media are gravitating to book arts. Their works, which are showing up in gallery exhibits and crafts shows, are commanding hundreds of dollars. Bob Possehl, a former photographer, took up bookmaking professionally in 1989, when he found out that photo-developing chemicals were making him sick. Now he teaches bookmaking as art therapy to pediatric patients at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He plans to open a book-arts store in West Prairie, Wis., later this month with his wife, whom he met at a book-arts class. With reporting by Elizabeth Coady/Chicago, Sarah Sturmon Dale/Minneapolis and Deirdre van Dyk/New York

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