#727: The Heart of the Book

December 19th, 2016

“Books are…”

He trailed off, glanced around a bit, swirled his mug of coffee, sucked some air in through his teeth and let out a frustrated ah as he tried to find the end to the sentence.

“They’re living things.”

He’s 29, lives in a garden apartment in Logan Square. He’s thin, with a thin-cut plaid shirt and a thin tie that he seemed to just be wearing even though it’s the weekend and he has no real need to.

Sam Feinstein is a professional bookbinder.

You can’t tell it from his thin tie, ruffled shock of brown hair or glasses. The clues are in the space itself, tables ordered with stacks of leather and gold leaf and chisel-like finishing tools dating as far back as the 1800s. By the garden apartment’s bay windows, a long metal blade pole lopper juts out from a 1,000-pound cast-iron board shear, the reason he lives in a garden apartment in the first place.

“I knew I was getting it, I knew I didn’t want it to fall through the floor to kill someone, so I figured a garden unit is probably the best way to go,” Feinstein chuckled.

He’s a good bookbinder too. For the Newberry Library’s exhibit around the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Feinstein was the top pick for a new, modernistic binding of an art book inspired by the Bad Quarto version of Hamlet. Dr. Jill Gage from the Newberry spoke the world of him when I talked with her in May, noting almost as an afterthought that he’s 29 and working in a centuries-old field. His skill, not his age, was the novelty.

With hundreds of tap tap taps of a heated chisel-like finishing tool, Sam Feinstein merges gold and leather in intricate networks of dots, lines and words.

It helps with the pain.

“I was going to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — this was in 2007 — and I was riding my bike to school one day and got hit by a van. Suffered a concussion, broke my right wrist and, you know, was a bit banged up,” he said. “And that was the onset of ‘chronic intractable post-traumatic headaches’ is what they called it. So basically since that day I’ve been in constant pain.”

He tried to stick with school, but his studies — Latin, Greek and French for his Classics and English Literature double major — made his headaches worse. He had to drop out of school and move back to Chicago to find a life “working with my hands instead of working with my head.”

Online in 2009, Feinstein found out about a school in Boston that taught fine bookbinding.

“I thought, ‘I like books,’” he said.

As the North Bennet Street School only accepts eight students a year and requires a portfolio, Feinstein started teaching himself bookbinding. It appealed both to his nature and his new medical need for manual work.

“I identify more as an artisan or as a craftsperson than an artist, and definitely not an artist with a capital A,” he said.

“It’s kind of a way for me to be part of a larger group of people who are making design decisions and having some sort of artistic license. Who made the paper? What kind of paper is it? Who wrote the book? What’s their philosophy? Who did the illustrations? Why did they do the illustrations the way they did them? Who was the publisher? Who did the letterpress printing? There are a lot of different people that create what a book is, so for me working within the parameters of being respectful to everyone that’s already put time and effort into this object — one of the things I try to do is access that. What’s the essence of the book and how do I convey that in the binding?”

For example, as a personal project to protest the recent presidential election, he decided to rebind a copy he owned of Bernie Sanders’ book “Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In.” He eschewed his usual golden intricacies in favor of blind tooling, where dark impressions are made by pushing heated tools into wet leather. It creates an elegant, simple, durable object.

“It really wouldn’t make too much sense to do a bunch of gold tooling on a book by Bernie Sanders,” he said. “It’s for and of the people.”

If he’s rebinding a historical text — he’s rebound books from as far back as 1505 — he considers his job to make the binding consistent with the book’s era, not its content. If he was hired for the artistry, his first step is to do a deep read.

“I’ll read them, I’ll take them in, I’ll do sketches, I’ll write down quotes that I really like,” he said. “My creative process is something like that: reading the book, taking it in, digesting it, cutting it to pieces, putting it back together and then ultimately making some sort of decision as to what I want to do with it.”

He’s constantly asked if his field is dying in the age of e-readers and online content. He knows it isn’t.

Ours is.

For this website, I have to keep paying 1&1 Internet domain registration every month for the rest of my life so the 727 stories I’ve written so far don’t disappear. Once I die and my autopayments stop, everything I’ve done will never have existed.

I’ve been working on a local history research project constantly hampered by a decision Wrapports LLC’s former CEO Michael Ferro made in 2014 to delete the Chicago Sun-Times’ online archives as part of the Sun-Times Network rollout. I can still go to the microfiche room at the Harold Washington Library to look up old issues, but the newer ones that relied on the site are just gone. Right now, I can get a Sun-Times article from the 1890s but not one from the 2010s.

But the book, the endurable, mockable, endless object will exist.

“El corazón del libro nunca deja de latir.”

It’s a quote Feinstein likes from Spanish bookbinder Emilio Brugalla, who died the year Sam Feinstein was born. Brugalla was a legend in the small field, and Feinstein calls him his favorite bookbinder.

It means “The heart of the book never stops beating.”

In a basement apartment in Logan Square, with leather, gold and a 1,000-pound cast iron shear, Sam Feinstein will tap tap tap away, brush off the gold leaf excess and create something that will exist centuries after this sentence disappeared in a digital haze.

Watch video of Feinstein talking about his work for the Newberry

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You are currently reading #727: The Heart of the Book by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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