Communion Of Dreams

Fun with old book forensics.

I’m currently working on a two-volume set of a 1641 book, and noticed something interesting which I thought I’d share.

It’s fairly common to find minor errors in page numeration in books from this time period, and normally I don’t pay them much attention. They’re usually just a transposed number or something simple like that, a simple error made by a type-setter in a hurry or suffering from a hangover. But when I have to take a book apart for resewing (and usually other minor repairs to allow that), I try to be careful to make sure that I am putting them back together in the proper order, and that means checking and double-checking the order of the signatures.

A printing convention from this time period was to note the sequence of each section with an alphabet code at the bottom of the printed pages. The first section would be “A”, the second “B” and so forth. Then they’d go from “Z” to “AA” (or sometimes “Aa”) for as many cycles through the alphabet as necessary. This made it easy to make sure that the sections were in order when a bookbinder got involved, since oftentimes several different printers would be involved in the creation of a book, each one responsible for producing a set number of different sections (say section A through section FF, with another printer doing GG through CCC, etc).

Anyway, take a look at these two images:

Sections ZZz and AAaa


The back page of ZZz and the front page of AAaa.

Note the page numbers jump from 828 on the back of ZZz to 889 on the front page of AAaa.

Now, look at these two images from the second volume of the book:

Sections Zzz and AAaa.


Back page of Zzz on top of the front of AAaa.

Note the page numbers jump from 816 on the back of Zzz to 807 on the front page of AAaa.

There are other minor errors in the printing (which I’ve noted, since the book is in Latin I can’t speak to the text), but it is very interesting to find this kind of numeration problem at exactly the same break in sections in both books. I certainly can’t prove it, but my guess is that two different printers had the responsibility for the sections leading up to ZZz/Zzz and those starting with AAaa, and someone screwed up in telling them what the proper numbering was supposed to be for the pages they were to do.

Kinda fun, eh?

Have a good Easter weekend.


Jim Downey

Printed in blood.

While on my morning walk, I was enjoying the beautiful day, the glint of sun on the dewdrops, the company of my dog.

And thinking about blood.

Specifically, about the old notion of a “contract signed in blood.”

Well, what if you had a culture which took books so seriously, that they were always made using blood as the ink?

Just off the top of my head, I could come up with all kinds of justifications for how such a culture might arise, from fantasy (‘blood magic’) to Science Fiction (books could always be traced back to their source through the DNA in the blood) to the plain creepy (“we do honor to our ancestors/enemies/icons by using their blood to write history”).

Yeah, it’s a little scary how my brain works sometimes.


* * *

And after I come up with something like that, usually within just a few seconds, my mind races off to consider what the practical ramifications would be to such a thing.

Economically, there’s some fun stuff you could do with it. Books could be purchased with the buyer’s own blood: “Price – just 750ml – get yours today!” Which also implies blood as the basic economic unit, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case.

Mechanically, blood itself wouldn’t be a great printing ink without some other elements. So you could have the whole printing revolution based not on the development of a printing press, but on the discovery of how to make blood suitable for mass printing.

As a book conservator, dealing with books printed in blood would present some additional challenges. Depending on what else was added to it to make it suitable for printing could make it damage the paper it was printed on (this is actually a big problem with some printing inks used in history). And if I needed to do restoration work, would I need to find blood of the same type, in order to match the original ink?


* * *

Usually about this point in such speculation, I start to wonder just what in the hell got me thinking about these things in the first place.  What was my subconscious chewing on?

I could perhaps tie it to the odd little movie we watched last night.

Or that my wife had a close call last week. There wasn’t a lot of blood per se, but the symbolism is kinda hard to ignore.

Both good candidates. Both likely elements.

But in the end I decided that it was just that I’ve been thinking a lot about writing. About printing. About bookbinding.

All those things are measures of my life. In some very real sense, they *are* small, tangible pieces of my life.

Not unlike blood, I suppose.

The Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams will be free all day tomorrow. And remember, if you would like a chance to win a full-leather, hand-bound copy of the special edition, you need to write a review on Amazon and post a link in the original blog entry about the drawing. That’s a $250 – $350 value.

Even more, it’s part of my life.

Maybe it will be a part of yours.


Jim Downey


Done with ‘backwards’.

I just printed out the following text:

Following the completion of my successful Kickstarter for St. Cybi’s Well in the Fall of 2012, I proceeded to make arrangements for a limited edition print run of Communion of Dreams to be bound by hand. See the Colophon on the dedication page of this book for details.

However, there was an error at the printer’s with the first printing. In spite of having had a correct proof copy, the initial printing was done entirely backwards – laid out as though the book was intended to be read back-to-front, with the spine on the right side, and in which you turn the pages from left to right.

At first I thought the entire print run would need to be recycled. Indeed, once the printer realized their error, that’s what they asked me to do with the printed sheets in order to save them the cost of shipping.

Errors are part of the handmade process. In this case, the error wasn’t mine, but came from the printer. Whoever set up the print run managed to load the pages backwards, and in the process opened an unexpected door. When things like this happen, I’ve learned to roll with it. It’s like a little surprise, something special the universe gives you – serendipitous art.

So I decided to hand-bind a few of these ‘backwards’ books, as curiosities. How many? Just 15 copies – thirteen ‘lettered’ copies (A – M), and two artist’s/author’s proofs. This copy is letter _____.


Add a designated letter, and my signature, and then those sheets will be the ‘paste-down’ sheets for the back cover — er, I mean front cover — of the backwards books.  Yup, I’m all done with that little binding project. There are still 7 copies unclaimed, but now that they’re actually made I expect that they’ll find homes fairly soon.


Jim Downey


The little photo essay of making these books isn’t fundamentally different than the first set shown, but it’s kind of fun to see the larger volume of the whole process.

Sheets for collating.

Sheets for collating.


Sheets gathered & folded into sections.

Sheets gathered & folded into sections.


Text blocks sewn, lined, stacked to dry.

Text blocks sewn, lined, stacked to dry.


Making the covers. Note the stack of cut boards, the stack of cut pieces of book cloth.

Making the covers. Note the stack of cut boards, the stack of cut pieces of book cloth.


Boards mounted, turning in the edges & corners to finish the covers.

Boards mounted, turning in the edges & corners to finish the covers.


"Pasting in" - the process of mounting the text blocks to the covers.

“Pasting in” – the process of mounting the text blocks to the covers.


Finished books, stacked and drying.

Finished books, stacked and drying.


And all done.