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The word on the street

Celebrating Pioneer Valley creators of handmade books

It was once said that there were more creators of handmade books in Western Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country. That may have been true, but the claim speaks to the critical mass of book artists, such as printers, paper makers, illustrators, and binders, working in and around Northampton. Particularly influential was the late Leonard Baskin, founder of Gehenna Press, who set up shop in the Pioneer Valley in the 1950s and taught a new generation of book artists at Smith and Hampshire colleges.

From "Paste Papers of the Pioneer Valley." Stephanie Gibbs has a master's in book conservation and works as a bookbinder.
From "Paste Papers of the Pioneer Valley." Stephanie Gibbs has a master's in book conservation and works as a bookbinder.(Handout)

The tradition of handmade books is celebrated in the slim new volume, “Paste Papers of the Pioneer Valley,’’ copublished by Kat Ran and Catawba presses. It features full-page samples of 19 paste papers and details about the artists who made them.

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Book lovers may be familiar with the marbled papers used to decorate the inside covers of books. Paste papers, though lesser known, date to about 1600. They enhance a book without being showy. Michael Russem, owner of Kat Ran Press, which has offices in Western Massachusetts and Cambridge, said, “They are a way to remember that the book was and is a physical object.’’

Ground watercolor or acrylic pigment is mixed with wheat flour or another starch and applied to dampened paper. The mixture is then combed, pulled, or otherwise manipulated to produce unique patterns.

The standard edition of “Paste Papers’’ is selling well among bookbinders looking for a bit of inspiration. And at a time when e-books are in ascendance, lovers of finely crafted books remain fervent. All 20 deluxe boxed editions of “Paste Papers,’’ each containing a portfolio of 19 original matted 8-by-10-inch paste papers and priced at $950, have been sold.

The art of free speech

In 1975, two New York artists sued their ex-friend Paul Georges for libel over his depiction of them in his painting “The Mugging of the Muse.’’ The muggers wear masks that look like Jacob Silberman and Anthony Siani. In their lawsuit, the two artists contended that Georges had held them up to “ridicule and scorn’’ and accused them of criminal conduct.

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Both Silberman and Siani were awarded $30,000 in damages in a decision that was overturned in 1982. “Far worse commentary is written almost daily by newspaper and magazine critics of every aspect of the arts,’’ the court said.

Michael Stein, a doctor who teaches at Brown University, drew on the case for his latest novel, “The Rape of the Muse’’ (Permanent Press). The narrator is Rand Taber, a young artist with painter’s block who is the studio assistant to one of the plaintiffs. It’s a tale of artistic inspiration, love, betrayal, and First Amendment rights.

Coming out

■ “This Is a Call: The Life and Times of Dave Grohl’’ by Paul Brannigan (Da Capo)

■ “The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain’’ by Allan Massie (Thomas Dunne)

■ “The Forgotten Affairs of Youth’’ by Alexander McCall Smith (Pantheon)

Pick of the week

Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, recommends “Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World’’ by Richard Rhodes (Doubleday): “Who knew that Hedy Lamarr was an inventor and that her inventions helped lay the groundwork for digital wireless by inventing spread spectrum radio? This fascinating book combines the backdrop of Hollywood during World War II and the little known world of amateur inventors helping to fight Nazi technology.’’

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Jan Gardner can be reached at JanLGardner@yahoo.com. Follow her on Twitter @JanLGardner.