Some of my favorite reading experiences have come from choosing a book thinking it is one thing, and finding it is something completely different. So it was with A Degree of Mastery: A Journey through Book Arts Apprenticeship. I had requested the library reserve it for me based on the keywords and short description in the online book catalog, which led me to believe it would help quench my thirst for more knowledge on the art of bookbinding. What I found was the story of one woman's almost accidental discovery of book restoration, and her apprenticeship under one of the great book preservationists of our time.
Each of the five chapters has a central theme that ties together a portion of Annie Tremmel Wilcox's journey from typesetter and professor of Rhetoric to book restorer with information about the various book arts she pursues. The opening chapter, "Beginnings and Endings," interweaves her work to restore a copy of A Circumstantial Narrative of the Campaign in Russia with the story of her discovery of a deep love for bookbinding and restoration. As she cleans and rebinds the book, she reminisces about her first meeting with internationally renowned master craftsman, William Anthony, when he had restored a collection of books for the University of Iowa and was giving a presentation about the treatments he had used. Familiar with the process of building a new book, she was immediately fascinated with the idea of taking one apart, cleaning and repairing the pages, and rebinding the volume to match its former glory. When Anthony came to the University to set up a Conservation Department in its library, she began taking night classes from him, learning more advanced techniques of bookbinding than she had been exposed to before. As the semesters passed she developed both an aptitude and a deep passion for the book arts, and Anthony asked her to become his apprentice, the first woman he'd ever offered the position to.
Dr. Wilcox then turns her attention to the tools of the trade. Bookbinders have a tendancy to scavenge and adapt tools from other fields to their needs, assembling eclectic collections from such diverse areas as carpentry, jewelry, painting, and even surgery. Sprinkled liberally throughout her discussion of making and using various tools of the art, such as the lifting knives she ground from a hacksaw blade, are explanations of her understanding of the concept of apprenticeship. Much of her view on the intertwined technical and spritual aspects of the apprenticeship concept come from Toshio Ōdate's Japanese Wookworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use, from which she quotes extensively. She also discusses Anthony's method of teaching his apprentices, pushing her to think for herself and consider what steps to take in a task first, then ask for further explanation and demonstration when she is ready. It is a lesson she took to heart; in conservation it is vital to consider all aspects of the restoration at hand before diving in with the proper tools to perform the proper steps.
The next chapter details her initiation into the full range of book arts, with the beginning of her apprenticeship. Though being part of the university's Conservation Department, she did not face the requirement of completing a certain amount of work for paying clients (as is the norm in apprenticeships to preservationists in business for themselves), she did face the daunting task of having to learn the trade while working in books from the library's Special Collections of historical books. There were no practice pieces; every restoration mattered. She also faced her first experience with a full time job; she had previously worked part time at a bindery while teaching and studying toward her doctorate. Her tremendous respect for Anthony as a teacher comes through strongly as she details his teaching techniques (possibly including being on vacation for her first two weeks of work, allowing her time to settle into the routine and get to know the other apprentice she would be working with). The learning process can be both frustrating and rewarding, and Dr. Wilcox includes examples of both, along with excerpts from the journal she kept throughout. Over the months, her skills improved dramatically, and she learned from her mistakes. Anthony taught her that very little of what they were doing could not be undone and redone to correct mistakes, and showed her first hand that the mark of a true master is not that he is always a perfect craftsman, but that he can always find a way to correct a mistake.
Dr. Wilcox next approaches the public perception of book arts and conservation. The university and Bill Anthony were approached to restore and preserve the State of Iowa's 130-year-old Constitution, which had suffered over the years from imperfect storage. It was a relatively straightforward restoration, but it pushed the Conservation Department into the public eye like never before. In addition, she was also doing her part to educate the public about the craft, travelling the state to give workshops as part of the University of Iowa's Arts Outreach Program. She got a good taste of what it was like to try to teach bookbinding to many different types of students, from sugar-enhanced elementary schoolers to bored and indifferent high schoolers at a boarding school. Despite the frustrations this often entailed, she discovered that the response of a single inspired and enthusiastic pupil can make any number of hardships worthwhile.
It was during this time, unnoticed by the apprentices, that Bill Anthony started growing thinner and paler. In the summer of 1988, while on vacation, he was taken to the emergency room for extreme abdominal pain, and sent home to see a specialist as soon as possible. That August, while two new apprentices were starting work in the Conservation Department, surgery revealed that he had liver cancer, and would have to begin chemotherapy immediately.
The final chapter deals with the end of Dr. Wilcox's apprenticeship. With Anthony absent for chemotherapy and recouperation, his four apprentices took on more and more of his duties, teaching each other, and even completing an exhibition the master had been working on. They helped Anthony keep his hand in with frequent visits to his home. He managed to make it to the exhibits opening and, though clearly exhausted, told them what a wonderful job they had done.
Two months later, on February 8, 1989, William Anthony succumbed to the cancer that had been slowly eating away at him. Though the library brought in different conservators to work with the department and teach the apprentices afterwards, they all had to face the depressing reality that their apprenticeships were essentially over. After three months of working on the final batch of restorations Anthony had left for her, Dr. Wilcox realized that despite the help to be gained from having someone show her how to do something, it was really up to her to teach herself. She decided to finish out her apprenticeship as apprentice to herself, and began work on the final volume in her stack: a 1477 incunabulum entitled Historia Rerum Ubique Gestarum. By far the oldest piece Anthony had assigned to her, this was to be her masterpiece -- in the original sense of the word, a "work created by an apprentice to demonstrate the skills and knowledge learned," as czeano puts it. It marked the end of her work as an apprentice, and the beginning of her career as a book conservator and teacher of the book arts.
What truly comes across throughout this book is that Annie Wilcox is one of the lucky few who have discovered her true calling in life, and was further lucky enough to do so at a time when the best possible teacher was available to her. Though William Anthony is gone, his legacy lives on -- in the books he preserved, in the apprentices he left behind, and in the lessons they learned and will pass along to their own students. Anyone who reads this book cannot help but take something from it, and in so doing keep that legacy alive.
czeano. "masterpiece." Everything2.
Wilcox. Annie Tremmel. A Degree of Mastery: A Journey through Book Arts Apprenticeship. Minnesota Voices Project Number 88. New Rivers Press. 1999.