• Monica Carroll

Bookbinders’ hands know things that other hands do not know. Familiar phrases such as ‘embodied cognition’, ‘muscle memory’ and ‘felt knowing’ attempt to express the exceptional qualities of people who hold knowledge in their body, the binder’s hands being one such example. This paper uses experimental writing to locate embodied knowledge in a material world through phenomenological structures of the given world.


phenomenology — bookbinding — hands — experience — materiality — rare books — vieux livres — livres anciens — Buchbinder



This is the eighth edition of this paper. Previous editions include a short story, numbered propositions, an exegetic essay, a poem, an interview, a script, and fictocriticism. This edition will be ‘printed’ in an online journal to which none of the conventions of bookbinding are materially relevant. This constraint means that words, spaces and punctuation are the sum of that available to persuade and articulate an argument concerned with the role of handedness in bookbinding. This edition combines pieces from the previous seven editions.

Bookbinders’ hands know things that other hands do not know. Familiar phrases such as ‘embodied cognition’, ‘muscle memory’ and ‘felt knowing’ attempt to express the exceptional qualities of people who hold knowledge in their body, the binder’s hands being one such example. These phrases, and similar others, emphasise the internal and anatomical aspects of bodily knowledge; that is, knowledge as inhabiting a mechanical internal space of the skilled body. Embodied knowledge, however, is a knowledge not of an internal body space but of the plain material world directly given and, moreover, given in the flesh.


Front board

There are parts of living we experience yet do not articulate to ourselves. As this paper is an articulation of the experience of hand-skills, it is important to avoid ‘freezing’ lively performance into an ‘object’ (see Behnke 2009: 191). The material practice of professional bookbinder, tango instructor and researcher, Erika Mordek, is foundational to the structure of this work. Mordek’s bookwork has been exhibited in international competitions in Argentina, the United States and England. She has worked in book conservation for a national cultural institution. Mordek is a professional book repairer and book maker. She has taught tango for 11 years. She has travelled to Argentina and within Australia to learn her tango; she has adapted her learning to create her own methodology, and offers workshops and tuition.

Many artists and material practitioners do not publish detailed descriptions of their day-to-day life experience. While Mordek writes and publishes on the topic of bookbinding (see theboxgirl.wordpress.com), her written work, while deeply engaging, sporadically describes the experiential structures of her work. Considering this, Mordek’s approach and experience are documented here through conversation.



Carroll: Do you have a relationship, in your felt-body, between tango and book binding?

Mordek: Automatic response in tango and in bookbinding hand-skills allows you to concentrate on other details. If I can tension my sewing without thinking about it because I can feel it, then I can let my mind wander in thinking about cover design. In tango if I know how to move my leg out of the way, then I am free to feel the signals projected by my partner. You learn to use your body efficiently, just as you learn the best way to get the maximum out of a sheet of paper, or how to correctly use your body when sewing.

Absorption, or immersion, often observable by the appearance of movement, or force, maintains an experience of spatial unity and temporal continuity. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is a phenomenologist of dance. She says movement through the unity of subject with object, e.g. binder with book or dancer with dance, is never complete at any one instant. In her words, movement is ‘never fully there’ (2015: 28), therefore consciousness as it exists in the movement of body is always projecting itself to a spatio-temporal future — as a ‘form-in-the-making’.

Yet, when we look at Mordek’s words above, there is not a sense of an ‘incomplete’ form that is not-yet-made and driven to make for a future moment of completion. ‘Automatic response’, as Mordek describes in her experience above, does not engender images of a yet un-made form making itself towards a future completion. Indeed, the experience of book-binding and dance, as examples of ‘lived experience’ as Sheets-Johnstone describes it (despite its explicit reference to the past) is an experience of now-here-making. Movement is not necessarily a phenomenon that attains ‘completion’.

To remain grounded to a material phenomenology is to constantly distinguish between process and outcome. A commitment to understanding experience, phenomenologically, is a commitment towards activity (such as dancing and binding); we must remain clearly in this domain without slipping into ‘result’, ‘object’, ‘product’ or ‘outcome’ (such as dance or book).



David Lehman, poet and editor, tells of being invited to a party at Jim Wier’s house. David asks Jim for directions.

‘Would you like me to draw a map for you?’ Jim asks David.

‘That would be good,’ said Jim.

‘Look at my palm’, said Jim, turning up his right hand and using a left-hand finger as a pointer. David looked at Jim’s palm and reflected that ‘suddenly we were in a James Tate poem’ (Lehman 2016: xv). From the hand-map gesture David found the location of the party without becoming lost.

The exchange was not ‘like’ being in a James Tate poem: ‘suddenly we were in a James Tate poem’. Through the gesture of one hand to another, metamorphosis. Embodied knowledge does not need to operate through simile; it is directly given through the world. The world is directly ‘given’ to us. It is not hidden behind a curtain, or a formula; the world just is.  



A door opened upon my first reading of Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological description of one hand touching another in his applied phenomenological text Ideas II (1952). I am not the only person to be touched by this passage (see Cobb-Stevens 1983,1 Welton 2005,2 Buytendijk 1961,3 Merleau-Ponty 1964,4 and Zahavi 19945).

The left hand examined by touch, I feel about the phenomena, i.e. I not only feel, but I perceive and have appearances of a soft, so-and-so shaped, smooth hand. The movement and sensations showing the representation of tactile sensations that are on the thing ‘left hand’ are objectified features that belong to the right hand. But in the left hand’s touching I find in it a series of tactile sensations, they are ‘localised’ in it, but are not constitutive properties (such as roughness and smoothness of the hand, this physical thing) (Husserl 1952: 144–45).

As the ‘father’ of phenomenology Husserl established an articulation of philosophy based in describing first-person experience. His investigations, as open and ongoing descriptions, reveal recurring dedications. One such central claim ‘is that things are given in the flesh’ (Franck 2014: 39). We can read this claim in two ways. One is that the world and its ‘things’ are given to us as and through ‘stuff’, material, such as our living body (flesh). Another reading is that ‘through the flesh’ is a means of ‘discovery’. For example, in the quote above, the twice-experience of touching and touched brings into question cognitive divisions between object/subject, internal/external and self/other.



In Ancient Greece, poems, lyric poems, were sung by the voice while the hand was ‘sung by the lyre’. Writers often remark on the separation, and union, of the poem and voice,6 but what of the poem in union with the hand? And in union with movement? In Ancient Greece poems were sung and danced, by groups of people.



Carroll: Your historical work, such as The Perfume of Books, is detailed and extensive. What keeps a fire going in you for this type of research?

Mordek: There is a very simple reason — because I can

  • Husserl says ‘I can’ is a system that is the unity of the self
  • ‘I can’ differs in experience from ‘I do’
  • ‘If I represent to myself the movement of my hand in the form, “I move my hand”, then I am representing an “I do” and not a merely mechanical motion’ (Husserl 1952: 273)
  • Not merely a mechanical motion



Carroll: Erika, can you describe what bookbinding means to you?

Mordek: Bookbinding is about producing something useful. So many people are in paper pushing jobs, policy making, lots of talk and words but very little action. I create something. At the end of the day I have an item that is useful; it is useful because I have rebound a broken book so it can be read again, or I have made a blank book for the purpose of being written into, or I have bound someone’s thesis/writing/text so that everyone can handle the information and read it.



(Bookbinding is practical work towards a material end.)

Mordek: ‘a bunch of folded paper held together with thread within some sort of protective cover, that is a book’ (Mordek 2016: 5).

Philosopher: Work itself is a material action; immaterial work such as love is material.

  1. Weave cloth
    1. with threads drawn from your own heart
      1. as if your beloved were to wear that cloth
  2. Build a house
    1. with affection
      1. as if your beloved were to dwell in that house
  3. Sow seeds
    1. with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy
      1. as if your beloved were to eat the fruit
  4. Fashion with a breath of your own spirit
    1. know that all the blessed dead are standing about you watching
      1. Work is love made visible

‘And what is it to work with love?’ (Gibran 1973)

-poetic essay points to non-material knowledges experienced in material manifestations

-bookbinding is body-work, physically insistent

-stamina for the heavy, delicacy for the dainty, begins with the hands


Raised bands

Bookbinder Franz Zeier says the most remarkable tool we have, in the bindery, and elsewhere, is our own hand.

It carries out any conceivable action, does it slowly or swiftly, vigorously or gently, with the highest degree of adaptability. Without delay it carries out our plans … Our hands can manipulate objects rough and smooth, tiny as paper snips and large as lithography stones. (Zeier 1990: 12)

Zeier’s emphasis on the hand is counter-intuitive to the practice of bookbinding. We can be forgiven for thinking that bookbinding is a practice reliant on a toolbox. Awl, blade, bone folder, needle, and ruler are, metaphorically, the anatomy to which a bookbinder offers her hand.

(‘What is expressed through the spirit is expressed through the hand’ (Zeier 1990: 12).)


Carroll: Can you feel when you have knowledge in your hands?

Mordek: Yes. When I was doing a lot of book repairs there would be a point when I knew just how deep to poke my lifter or just when to stop before I went too far. In the beginning I did cut too deep and go beyond the material’s tensile strength.


Text block

Between Mordek & Zeier (in phenomenology) = Heidegger and the hammer

Spirit-to-body-to-hand-to-tool-to-work-to-book-to-useful thing = anatomy (a conventional epistemological game)

Hands = appendage, tools (as objects) = seized, used

Zeug ist seiner Zeughaftigkeit entsprechend immer aus der Zugehörigkeit zu anderem Zeug: Schreibzeug, Feder, Tinte, Papier, Unterlage, Tisch, Lampe, Möbel, Fenster, Türen, Zimmer. Diese »Dinge« zeigen sich nie zunächst für sich, um dann als Summe von Rea-lem ein Zimmer auszufüllen (Heidegger 1927: 68).

According to their character, useful things always come from belonging to other useful things: writing materials, pen, ink, paper, desk blotter, table, lamp, furniture, windows, doors, rooms. These ‘things’ never show themselves first, then fill out a room as the sum of the real (Heidegger 1927: 68).

Useful things come from belonging to other useful things

Useful things bound in reference to complex of use-connections

Handlichkeit, of our things —hammer, lifter, bound book — known through use

Expressed in gerundive form, e.g. hammering, lifting

Usefulness is known through use. The lifter is not being held in the hand and then used. The work is not in a hand holding a tool so that through the tool the hand may poke at a section of a book. „Das bestellte Werk ist seinerseits nur auf dem Grunde seines Gebrauchs und des in diesem entdeckten Verweisungszusammenhanges von Seiendem“ (Heidegger 1927: 70). ‘For its part, the ordered work is based solely on the reason for its use and the relationship of being found in it’ (Heidegger 1927:70). Neither the hand nor book are subject just as neither the lifter nor page are objects. Instead, the work is a non-linear work-ing of spirit-body-hand-lifter-page.



Carroll: In class, as an experienced bookbinding teacher, you encourage your students to judge distance, and measure, with their eye rather than a ruler. What are you teaching when you do this?

Mordek: I am teaching each student to trust in themselves, in their own sense of judgement. In the main, your eye will detect the slightest discordance, just as your ear may hear the slightest dissonance. There are times when correct measurement with a ruler is necessary, but I find that mostly it can be done by looking.

To mark the centre of a strip of card that will become a book’s spine can be done by the type of ‘looking’ Mordek describes above. Or it can be done by measuring the width of the spine with a ruler and dividing the whole width in two, then marking the distance of that half number from one edge of the spine. Yet, when millimetres are involved, measuring by ruler both takes longer than ‘looking’ and, more significantly, ‘looks’ off-centre. The book-in-making is an expression of the hand, of the spirit; non-hand systems such as numerical measuring can disrupt, or corrupt, that expression.

We have a custom of thinking of body as a machine — a structure of interconnected working parts — this is foundational in anatomy. Yet the body, the hand, is able to unify with the material world, to grasp what is directly given and be shaped by it. (‘Done by looking’ is the complex nonlinear process of perception which is a process of being shaped by seeing and, in turn, shaping what is directly given.)



In experience the lifter is not being held in the hand and then used. The work is not in a hand holding a tool so that through the tool the hand may poke at a section of a book. The work is a process uniting subject and object. E.g. Maxine Sheets-Johnstone — ‘dancers and the dance are one’ (2015: 3).

Non-dancer: I raise my left leg.

Dancer: My leg is raised by the dance.

Similar inversion in David Sudnow (jazz pianist) on pressing keyboard keys — ‘their sounds seemed to creep up into my fingers’ (2001: 40). Sudnow’s experience — hands do not press keys to play notes — hands move, their destination realises a specific sound they’d gone there to make (2001: 40).


End paper

Carroll: In your blog you talk about ‘hand skills’. Could you tell me more about what that means to you?

Erika: Hand skills are acquired through repetition. Not just any repetition but a specific sort of repetition. I would hate to think of bookbinding hand skills as being the same as typing skills; I associate RSI with typing, not with bookbinding. But in each case, the fingers have memorised where they need to go; how to hold the needle or which finger to use on a keyboard for maximum efficiency. You develop muscle memory in your hands after much practise — to push your spatula just so, to measure the amount of pressure to run your thumb in a joint after covering a spine with leather.

What does it mean to say ‘the fingers have memorised where they need to go’?

  • ‘it’s hard to think of one’s leg discoursing philosophy or poetry, or one’s buttock propounding the meaning to an argumentative hand’ (Rowe-Evans 1964: 12).
  • ‘It would be bizarre … to say that only the man’s Body moved but not the man, that the man’s Body walked down the street, drove in a car, dwelled in the country or town, but not the man’ (Husserl 2000: 35).
  • ‘In poetry, words are like things, palpable and tasty as fruit. The kind of familiarity our body has with them is different’ (Dufrenne 1978: 115).



Often, our knowledge of our body sits apart from our experience of the body. Often, our traditional knowledge-base tends towards depictions of the body that are out of step with our bodily experience. There is a gap between traditional anatomy and the experience of the body. Anatomy comes to us visually in images, illustrated layers, and abstract models. We talk about our own organs and ligaments as being ‘in’ ourselves. We can point to the area of our thigh where our femur sits ‘inside’ us yet this anatomical knowledge may not align with our experience of legness, movement, solidity.

Carroll: As the Rare Book Detective you seem to be searching for exceptional works of binding, printing and paper-making. When you detect such works you have read them as evidence of work that is, in your words, ‘done lovingly, or at least with a great degree of care’. Is that the rarity that your detective seeks? Examples of care and love rendered into book art?

Mordek: I’m not as complicated as that. The rare component comes from the fact that books are classified as rare or modern. There are many criteria for rare books, the fact that there may be low in numbers, i.e. rare, notwithstanding. To my mind what makes them rare is that few people today hold them in their hand.



1. ‘When I touch my body with my hand, my body appears twice, as an explored quasi-natural thing and as an explorer’ (Cobb-Stevens 1983: 248).

2. ‘In the very process of touching the lived-body something new enters; the object touched also becomes the object touching. It is this unique structure of touching while being touched, of being touched while touching, that makes the lived-body palpable to itself and comes to constitute it as an object’ (Welton 2005: 180–81).

3. ‘How strangely one hand will seize, press and examine the other one, as if it did not belong to the same body’ (Buytendijk 1961: 103).

4. ‘If my left hand is touching my right hand, and if I should suddenly wish to apprehend with my right hand the work of my left hand in the course of touching, this reflection of the body upon itself always miscarries at the last instant: the instant that I feel my left hand with my right hand, I correspondingly cease touching my right hand with my left hand’ (Merleau-Ponty 1964: 24).

5. ‘If my hand touches the table top, I have a series of appearances that is experienced by the touching hand as belonging to the touched table top’ (Zahavi 1994: 70-71).

6. Examples from the canon — poetry is ‘memorable speech’ (Auden 1935). Eliot — ‘poetry is one person talking to another’ (1975: 31). ‘I have spent my life clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing back to syntax, that is for ear alone’ (Yeats 1961: 529).



I offer my warm and honest thanks to the two peer reviewers who read this paper prior to publication. My genuine gratitude is extended to Adam Dickerson who discussed draft work.


Works cited: 

Auden, WH 1935 The Poet’s Tongue: An Anthology of Verse, London: Bell

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