If you had to close your eyes and guess what Kate Murdoch does for a living, you could probably do it. She works from home, and her home has the scent of books. Old ones.
Her office, where she meets with clients, is in the front of her house and is filled with rolls of what looks like ordinary paper but could be parchment, or vellum, or leather even, ranging in colour from ivory to sepia. There are ancient books awaiting their owners, freshly repaired. Even the walls are the colour of old pages.
Murdoch practices an arcane and disappearing art, one that she learned more than 30 years ago and has been practicing since. She is a book binder and mostly a book restorer, working on Bibles for the most part but really any beloved and broken old book – cookbooks, old novels kept in families for generations, children’s books. Though we live in the age of spellcheck, one of her current projects is to bring an inches-thick and greying leather-bound dictionary back to usable form. Another assignment awaiting her in her third-floor workroom is the restoration of a virtually destroyed copy of The Wizard of Oz. The book has colour plates and is certainly old but is not a first edition or even a special one. It is simply a book with an owner who loves it.
If ever there were a person who could be counted on to eschew digital reading, you would think it would be someone like Murdoch, who has studied carefully the multitude of steps it takes to hand-build a book. But you would be wrong.
“When eBooks first came out about a decade ago, I did a number of interviews because at the time, the view was eBooks meant the death of the book. I was sought out to bolster the idea that eBooks are bad, and of course I must think that because I’m a bookbinder,” says Murdoch. “In truth, I have been wary of screens, and I did think “what about the pages? It’s crazy to read that way.”
And yet her relationship to books is far more complex than that, and far more surprising.
“How I feel about books sounds flaky, and I hate sounding flaky,” she says. But what speaks to her and makes books precious isn’t their newness, or even the stories they contain but rather what she terms their ‘provenance’.
“Well, I certainly don’t need to own a new book,” says Murdoch. The appeal of a bookstore and the smell of fresh ink on new paper escapes her.
“I have this sense of the life of a book, they seem to have life to me. I love to work with old objects – they go beyond being just an object if they have been owned and handled by others before us,” says Murdoch. “The flaky thing is, when I have an old book in my hands I have the sense of the people who have owned and loved it. I feel life in these objects. That is what I mean by provenance, and that is what appeals to me.”
The attachment to what others have enjoyed before was likely born of Murdoch’s first experiences with books. She was an avid user of the public library, something that still gives her great pleasure.
As an example, she describes having borrowed a Miriam Toews book from the library, and holding it in her hands felt like delight.
“It was old and not in great shape, it was quite battered actually, the pages were clearly well used and that made me so happy. Clearly hundreds of people had read that book. That meant something to me. It wouldn’t have been the same at all if no one else had touched it or thought about it,” says Murdoch. “I think maybe because I don’t need to own books, I am a good candidate for digital reading.”
There are several paradoxes in the work she does. First, though she is working with old objects, books that are sometimes centuries old, she is constantly learning new things as she carefully deconstructs and reconstructs their architecture. The work is incredibly detailed, and can include carefully ripping archival tissue to attach to the shattered edge of a page to make it whole again, then painstakingly painting the new tissue to perfectly match the aged paper. It can mean using a scalpel to separate deteriorated leather from the boards of a cover, and again carefully painting new leather to match the wear and staining of the rest.
Another paradox is her mission, which is to make the book usable again. So, in effect, she takes a book that has become an object – that which can only sit still on a shelf, disintegrating; something that will fall apart if read – and uses all the skills she learned first as a sculptor and painter and then as a bookbinder, to turn it into a book again, shifting it from object that can only be observed to something that can be handled and, ultimately, read.
And, when you read, the medium falls away, you are no longer conscious of holding an object, and you get lost in the story.
“That was actually my experience of reading an eBook on a screen. It had nothing to do with the screen and everything to do with the words. That’s what makes me believe in this e-stuff.”
There’s a further paradox. Regardless of her own artistry, a book’s provenance and even how much it is loved, often the books she works on have no intrinsic value.
“My son is a musician and repairs violins. If he puts a thousand dollars of work into a five hundred dollar violin, in the end it is a 1500-dollar violin. There is no such equation for books. People bring me books that are meaningful to them but might be worth 25-cents – they’re not first editions of anything so-called important, they might be a cookbook from their grandmother or a cheap book an uncle brought to this country. I may spend hours and hours on it and it will still be worth 25-cents.
“That is the funny thing about this business,” says Murdoch. “I do work on precious books, early editions bound in leather for example, where a discreet repair may have a big impact on its value. But very often the book is worth the same at the end of my work as before.” Well, to the market perhaps. To Murdoch and her customers, the book was and is priceless.
Murdoch works on books and in paper all day and yet has a strong attachment to digital in another way as well. She is an avid listener to what she still calls “story tapes”, or audiobooks.
It’s another great sign that this “e-stuff” will find a place in her heart.
“I read aloud to my children, and in fact we read aloud as a family well into their teen years,” says Murdoch. “Often, I can listen to something while I work, and I listen to tons of books – right now I’m listening to The Partial History of Lost Causes which is just wonderful.”