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You can’t have a book without a binding, just like it’s hard to bring your groceries home without a bag. But because bindings serve such a practical purpose, their creative potential is easy to overlook.

A new exhibition at Harvard’s Houghton Library puts the artistic dimensions of bookbinding on full display. “InsideOUT: Contemporary Bindings of Private Press Books” uses a clever approach to dramatize the creative side of bookbinding. The curators asked 59 bookbinders to create custom bindings for one of 28 titles, so different bookbinders end up taking their best shots at the same books.

The bindings on display were made from paper, parchment, cloth, tyvek, and leather (goatskin, in particular, was an especially popular choice), and were adorned with everything from mother of pearl to beaded velvet. This isn’t how we normally think about it, but the binding itself can make an artistic contribution to the work: in an e-mail, exhibition cocurator Jim Reid-Cunningham, who is also deputy director of the Boston Athenaeum, said binding a book is “akin to a musician playing a piece of music written by another composer.”

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In the pair of images below, you can see two bindings for Henry David Thoreau’s “Of Woodland Pools, Spring-Holes and Ditches.” The first has a warm, rustic look while the second is geometric and modern—stark differences, which remind us that the same book means different things to different people.

Binding by Coleen Curry. Henry David Thoreau. Of Woodland Pools, Spring-Holes and Ditches. Illustrated by Abigail Rorer. Lone Oak Press: Petersham, MA, 2005.
Binding by Coleen Curry. Henry David Thoreau. Of Woodland Pools, Spring-Holes and Ditches. Illustrated by Abigail Rorer. Lone Oak Press: Petersham, MA, 2005.Designer Bookbinders
Binding by Mark Esser. Henry David Thoreau. Of Woodland Pools, Spring-Holes and Ditches. Illustrated by Abigail Rorer. Lone Oak Press: Petersham, MA, 2005.
Binding by Mark Esser. Henry David Thoreau. Of Woodland Pools, Spring-Holes and Ditches. Illustrated by Abigail Rorer. Lone Oak Press: Petersham, MA, 2005.Designer Bookbinders

InsideOUT runs at Harvard’s Houghton Library through Dec. 13.


Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.