Communion Of Dreams

Against the grain.

Typically, there are many ways to accomplish a given task. Usually, some are better than others. Maybe they’re more efficient. Or less expensive. Or just work better.

And usually it seems like I always manage to find all the worst ways before finally stumbling on one of the better ones.

* * * * * * *

*against the grain 

1. Lit. across the alignment of the fibers of a piece of wood. (*Typically: be ~; Cut ~; go ~; run ~; saw ~.) You sawed it wrong. You sawed against the grain when you should have cut with grain. You went against the grain and made a mess of your sanding.
2. Fig. running counter to one’s feelings or ideas. (*Typically: be ~; go ~.) The idea of my actually taking something that is not mine goes against the grain.

* * * * * * *

We got the proofs back from the printer! Here’s some pix:

Cover sheet.

Text pages.

* * * * * * *

grain [grān]


  • The appearance and texture of wood due to the arrangement of constituent fibers.
  • The woodlike appearance or texture of a rock, metal, or other material.
  • The direction in which most fibers lie in a sample of paper, which corresponds with the way the paper was made on the manufacturing machine.

* * * * * * *

Typically, there are many ways to accomplish a given task. Usually, some are better than others. Maybe they’re more efficient. Or less expensive. Or just work better.

And usually it seems like I always manage to find all the worst ways before finally stumbling on one of the better ones.

But fortunately, I was taught early on at the University of Iowa Center for the Book about the “grain” of paper, and how it makes a crucial difference in how a book works. This was something which actually took papermakers and printers a while to figure out, back when new mechanized papermaking techniques were developed. That’s because typical western hand-papermaking didn’t really impart much of a ‘grain’ to paper used in printing presses for the first several centuries.

But back in the middle of the 19th century papermaking was mechanized, and this left a distinct alignment of the paper fibers. And that changes how this paper behaves. Simply put, you have to make sure that the grain is aligned with the spine of the book, or the paper doesn’t drape or move properly, leading to the book being mechanically ‘unfriendly’ to the hand. Most printers these days know about this and pay attention to it, but every once in a while someone will try and cut corners and use paper stock with the wrong grain orientation, and the consumer will wind up with a book which feels very stiff and hard to open/turn the page. As a bookbinder, this is something I *very* much have to pay attention to for small edition binding, and I always caution clients about it, since most normal people don’t have any idea that paper grain matters at all.

So the first thing I noticed when I took the proof sheets out of the box was that the grain ran the wrong way.


Turns out it was just a small miscommunication with the printer, and they’ll make sure to have the actual printed sheets for the book with the grain running the right way. My Good Lady Wife just talked with them, confirming that and giving final approval for the print run. The sheets should be ready for us to pick up the end of next week. Exciting!

Jim Downey

PS: Just a note – the usual convention with paper is to mark it “grain long” or “grain short” on the wrapping for a ream. Sometimes this is also indicated by underlining one of the numbers in the dimensions.


How very rewarding.

As I’ve been discussing recently, work continues on setting up everything for my upcoming Kickstarter project.

If you’re not familiar with how Kickstarter works, it might be worth checking out sometime. But basically the idea is that it exists to crowd-fund creative projects, allowing for people to gauge support for a project and finance it. A Kickstarter project runs for a specific length of time, working towards a given funding goal. If the goal is achieved, then the financing goes through and everyone is committed to success. If it doesn’t, then no one is left at risk.

Part of this is establishing “rewards” for promised funding from backers. Usually this includes a copy of a book or album or artwork which is the reason for the Kickstarter project, but people also include all manner of other items which are more personal. I mentioned earlier that one of the things I was going to be offering would be hand-bound copies of my books, bringing into the mix my bookbinding skills.

The more I thought about this, the more I’ve decided to have some fun with it. Specifically, by offering some very limited special rewards. Like custom bindings in cloth, calfskin, and goatskin.  Here’s one such “reward”:

Wow – Goatskin! Double Set: Get a personally handbound leather hardcover copy of *BOTH* “St. Cybi’s Well” and “Communion of Dreams”. The books will be numbered, also signed & inscribed to the recipient. Binding will be in full premium goat with a nice embossed label spine. Your choice of leather color and endpapers. Also includes download copy of both books. (For international shipping, please add $20.)

I’ve decided to get copies of the handbound books printed up in a different run than the usual paperbacks being offered through Createspace. These will be done using the exact same printing files, but will be printed on folded sheets so that they can be properly handsewn and then bound. Because if you’re going to do the thing, might as well do it right.

And after all, how many competent authors are also kick-ass book artists? I might as well play to my strengths.

Jim Downey

We are made by those we’ve known.
February 20, 2012, 6:37 pm
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, NYT, Science, U of Iowa Ctr for the Book

I’ve mentioned book conservation a few times in the five years this blog has been up. It is, after all, my actual profession. And I’ve mentioned the University of Iowa Center for the Book (UICB), the program through which I got my professional training. And I’ve even mentioned Tim Barrett, a good friend and mentor at the UICB who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called ‘genius award’) a couple of years ago.

Well, there’s a very nice profile of Tim in this past Friday’s New York Times: Can a Papermaker Help to Save Civilization?

It’s a good piece. And I was lucky to have learned much about paper and craftsmanship from Tim. Very lucky.

That reminds me – I owe him a copy of my book. When he gave me one of his, and signed it, I promised that someday I’d return the favor.

Jim Downey

#2, so I’ll try harder.

Earlier this year I got a nice note from the Director of Libraries at MU, asking whether I would be able to attend the Library Society annual dinner. As part of the evening’s event they were going to have on display some of the more noteworthy items from Special Collections Adopt-a-Book Program – work I had done, supported by donations – and they wanted to introduce me to their membership. Director Cogswell kindly offered to have my wife and I attend the fundraiser as guests of the Library Society.

* * * * * * *

It’s been a long week. I was sorely disappointed in the outcome of our local elections held on Tuesday, which saw a shift from Smart Growth advocates to a more “pro-development” slate of candidates for our city council/mayoral positions.

I’ve been involved in local politics at a very low level the last couple of years, mostly in trying to make sure that there was some balance between neighborhood interests and development. I’ve served as our neighborhood association president, and that has led to my participation in a variety of training workshops, as well as keeping a weather eye on development & rezoning issues in our area. I’m not against development – hardly – but I think it ought to be done with some intelligence and awareness of how it serves a community rather than just the bank account of a developer.

* * * * * * *

I confirmed that my Good Lady Wife and I would be happy to attend the Library Society dinner, though I preferred to pay the modest fund-raising donation for the dinner, and that I likewise would enjoy chatting with anyone in the Society who had an interest in my work. I’ve always been willing to do this sort of thing, meeting with donors, explaining the work I do and why it is important. In one sense, it’s self-serving – the donors are helping me earn a living – but beyond that my motivation is to help make sure the historically valuable books in these collections get the care they need.

It may sound a bit odd, but I’m actually fairly passionate about that. Yes, I do get paid for my conservation work, and it is a business – but I have always done a lot more work on rare books than I actually bill for. I don’t make a big deal out of this, it’s just my way of contributing something to the community and culture. If I were financially independent I would probably continue to do my conservation work, just as an in-kind donation to appropriate collections.

* * * * * * *

After Tuesday’s depressing election results, I had the last in a series of workshops scheduled on Wednesday to attend. The topic was “infill development” – a series set up by our Department of Planning to help explain why utilizing unused or neglected property within the city was a good strategy, and what the various issues pertaining to this kind of development were, and how development in cooperation with an established neighborhood could be to everyone’s benefit.

Let me tell you, it was damned hard to work up the motivation to attend that session. But I went, and was glad I did so.

* * * * * * *

The featured speaker for the Library Society dinner was to be Peter Hessler. Cool – I’ve read some of his work, heard him in interviews, respected his intelligence and humor. That alone would be worth the price of admission.

It was.

* * * * * * *

Thursday night there was another public event I needed to attend. It was the 2010 Neighborhood Leadership class. I had been in the 2009 class (the first one), and had been asked to sit in on a panel discussion about my actual experiences with building my neighborhood association. The other panel member is a fellow I know, like, and respect for the things he has done in his (much larger) neighborhood in this regard, and I knew that we would make a good team discussing this topic.

It went really well. I did a variation of my “don’t be afraid of failure” spiel in saying that each neighborhood would present a unique set of challenges and would need a unique set of solutions – that the neighborhood leaders would need to experiment, innovate, risk failure if they were to find the set of solutions that worked for them.

But like all such public speaking situations, it left me pretty much wrung out and a bit jittery after. Being an introvert is hell, sometimes.

* * * * * * *

We got to the pre-dinner reception, and it didn’t take very long to figure out that what I thought was going to be just a bit of a mention and some chatting with donors was actually a bigger deal than that.

These sorts of functions usually have assigned seating, with the ‘top table’ reserved for the emcee and featured speaker, a few Really Important muckity-mucks, right in front of whatever podium is being used. Well, my Good Lady Wife and I got our name tags, and discovered that we were assigned to table #2. And that our assigned seats were in perfect sight-line to the podium. And that we had the honor of sitting with the much-beloved chancellor-emeritus of the University, a couple of Deans, and assorted other Pretty Important People.

Furthermore the Director of Development caught me shortly after we got into the room, and pointed out that the centerpiece of each table was a nice flat cake. A nice flat cake which had “before” and “after” images of conservation work I had done, complete with the name of the donor who supported that work. And the cake on the #2 table was a book of Mark Twain’s “In Honor of James T. Downey”.


* * * * * * *

Friday afternoon, before the Library Society dinner, we had another function to attend. A former employer of my Good Lady Wife’s, who is still a professional colleague and friend of hers, was celebrating his 70th birthday.

We got to the party late (it was being done as an Open House at the offices of his architecture firm), knowing that the evening event would take at least a fair amount of energy. This was a good decision.

Oh, it wasn’t riotous or anything, but there were a lot of people in attendance – current and former employees, other architects and engineers in the community. It was relaxed and informal, and I felt a little out of place in a suit & tie (we were going directly from this party to the Library Society event). I hate feeling out of place. But at least I wasn’t under-dressed for the occasion.

We chatted, enjoyed ourselves. People asked what we were doing these days. It was a good warm-up for me.

* * * * * * *

I went over to the display of the rare books, said hello to Mike Holland, who is the University Archivist, Director of Special Collections. One of his staff people was there as well, and they were doing a fine job of talking about the books on display. I joined in – introducing myself to the donors who were looking, explaining some of my working methods and materials, and so forth. It was exactly what I expected, and thanks to my previous socializing at the birthday party, I was already past my nervousness and in full “GalleryMan” mode. I had several very nice conversations.

Then we were called to take our seats so the evening festivities could begin.

The program listed my Good Lady Wife and I among the ‘sponsors’ of the dinner. I did indeed get a very nice introduction to the crowd, and a round of applause for my work. During the course of dinner several people came by the table to talk with me further, ask opinions and advice about books they owned, et cetera. We had delightful dinner conversation with our table mates. It was, all in all, a very affirming experience that helped me see that my efforts have been worthwhile and appreciated.

So, as I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation by Peter Hessler after dinner, it was easy to not feel any jealousy for his recognition as a writer and author. Yeah, I did flash on how fun it would be to return to that dinner in a couple of years as the “noted author and featured speaker” of the event, but I could see that as just a fantasy. Knowing that if I got hit by a truck tomorrow my life would not have been in any sense wasted was extremely rewarding.

We all need that, now and again.

Jim Downey

It’s a Trap(door)!

I spent most of yesterday re-reading Communion of Dreams, to make sure that all the little changes I’d made in the previous week were correct and to see if I could catch a few more typos. Once it was all checked and double checked, I created manuscript files in the format preferred by the publisher, appended an email, and zipped the whole thing off. If you would like to see the finished product, the CoD homepage has now been updated to have the final .pdf version.

So, now we wait and see what the publisher decides.

And speaking of the publisher, I have had a couple of queries about them. It’s a new enterprise, Trapdoor Books. I like their attitude and approach, though of course with something so new it is hard to judge. And if this works out, I hope that I can help them as much as they can help me. If it doesn’t work out, no hard feelings on my part – lord knows that I had to turn down a lot of talented artists in the years I had the gallery.

But it does have something of the same feeling as when I first started at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. That too was a new enterprise, and no one was really sure how it would work out. Now it is perhaps the most highly regarded book arts program in the country, and my almost 20 year career as a conservator has both benefited from the reputation and added to it in a small way.

So, we’ll see. It looks like things are moving again with Her Final Year, and that book could garner a lot of mainstream attention, since there is little in the care-giving literature from a male perspective. BBTI will cross 2 million hits later this month, and we’re currently planning another very large series of tests this spring which will once again generate a lot of interest in the gun world. It could be a very interesting year.

Jim Downey

Fantastic news.
September 22, 2009, 9:48 am
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, U of Iowa Ctr for the Book

Wow – the MacArthur fellows were announced this morning.

And one of them is an old friend and mentor: Tim Barrett.

I spent several semesters with Tim, studying papermaking, at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, as part of my training as a conservator. I can honestly say that without his help, I would never have become the book conservator I am today, because Tim did such a thorough job of teaching me about how paper behaves and how to use it intelligently.

Wow – I’m just gobsmacked!! I’ve never known a MacArthur fellow before!

Jim Downey

Crossing over.

[This post contains mild spoilers about Communion of Dreams, particularly chapter 5.]

As I’ve been doing some conservation work this morning, I’ve been listening again to the audio version of Communion, done by Scot Wilcox of OwnMade AudioBooks, and discussed previously. I just enjoy hearing his interpretation.

Anyway, at the end of chapter five, as the first team of researchers is about halfway to Titan to investigate the alien artifact which has been discovered there, the protagonist has an odd dream which is described in some detail. In the dream Jon (the protagonist) crosses a bridge, and there’s lots of symbolism which is important for how the rest of the book unfolds. For this reason, I worked fairly hard to get the description just right. Scot’s reading of the passage is great, and really brought that scene to life for me.

Which is fairly easy, because it is based on a real scene – a real bridge: this bridge on the campus of the University of Iowa, which I crossed often while in graduate school at the Iowa Center for the Book. And the fun thing about that bridge – which I used for my own purposes in the description in the novel – is that because of the way it is built, it has a kind of spring to it as you walk across.

I enjoy knowing from whence artists and authors draw their inspiration and imagery, and thought I would share this on the off chance that someone else might be curious . (If anyone has better images of the bridge, feel free to post them/a link in comments – those were the best I could find with a quick search, but they are very dated.)

Jim Downey