Bound to please

Snake Art & Allegory  

Sometime between the age of three, when I first learned my letters, and the age of seven, when I went to the New World, I wrote a book. I don't remember the plot or the characters, or whether it was history or a collection of essays. It was written in pencil. It was probably illustrated. Mostly I remember a small stack of pages and my brilliant plan for quick and easy binding. A week earlier, I had watched our neighbour seal a polythene packet by passing the edges over the flame of an oil lamp. So when my pages were ready I asked my mother to use that same technique to bind them into a book. She soon put me right about what would happen when paper touched fire.

The shape and form of a book are a large part of its charm. Before we even look at the text, we examine the cover, run our hands over the lettering, check whether the pages are stitched together or only glued, and thumb the edges just for the feel of it. If no one's looking, we open them up and breathe in the sweet scent of new paper.

I recently got a book that begged to be groped and sniffed in this fashion, because its makers themselves have clearly been all over it. It is SSSS: Snake Art & Allegory, published by Tara Books. I'll get to the insides in a minute, but let's judge this one by its cover. It is a square hardback measuring seven by seven inches and covered in a rough-textured toffee-coloured paper with a serpent brushed on it in blackest ink. There is no dust jacket, so I run my fingers over the cover, till I can just about imagine a toffee-coloured stone on which an actual snake curls in the sun.

The pages are card-weight, handmade, with screen-printed illustrations in turquoise, green, orange-red and ochre. Swathes of ink stand in for forest, mountain, long black hair and snakes. The book smells inky. That's as good as an ocean breeze to a book-junkie who stands in an industrial printing press just to lose herself in its giant heartbeat.

The type is not set by hand, but it has that look. The uneven surface of the handmade paper sometimes causes a broken letter, and hence a retro look. The font is called Mrs Eaves. Its feminine name was one of the attractions it had for the book designer, since the text and illustrations were by women. It was named after the mistress, then wife of the 18th-Century printer and typographer John Baskerville, whose fonts were used for the first government documents printed in the newborn United States. Now for the inside stories. Linger over them, they are not long. They are Gita Wolf's retellings of the irresistible snake myths of India, the stories of Adisesha (who is also Ananta), Manasa, Takshaka, Ulupi, Vasuki, and the one I always feel a bit sorry for, Kalinga.

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Printable version | Oct 23, 2021 1:46:46 AM |

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