The story of a tiny Covid obsession
Once upon a time there was a girl named Rose. She loved books and read voraciously. Her dad was a trained pressman who eventually became the head of printing at University of Toronto Press, overseeing the production of hundreds of monographs.
He would bring home bound mock-ups of books with blank pages and give them to Rose. She loved to draw in the dummies, making her own illustrated books. She took for granted the sturdy binding, with sheets folded and sewn into signatures, then attached to the hard covers with glue or stitching.
Rose eventually became a children’s librarian in a public library, and then an elementary school teacher, all because she loved books. During her career she led generations of children to appreciate the written word, first in Owen Sound and even for a couple of years in Saudi Arabia.
She also developed a hobby interest in book binding. She especially loved collecting fine papers with ornate patterns that she stored away for future covers. Sometimes, Rose would craft handmade notebooks with blank pages, and give them to friends as presents, sort of like the books her dad gave her as a child.
One day about 15 years ago she bought an empty letterpress type case at the OCAD book arts fair, one of those wooden drawers with scores of tiny compartments that originally stored slugs of lead type, from the early days of hand typesetting.
Although she was attracted to the century-old object, Rose wasn’t sure what to do with it. She’d seen people fill them with tiny knick-knacks, but she deplored that. ”So tacky!“ Rose’s house was filled with well-organized bookshelves, in almost every room. She had an idea.
Why not fill the wooden case with tiny, handmade books? Not real ones, at least not ones you could read, but miniatures, made with pages from old books with very small type, and covers fashioned from old maps or decorative paper from her collection?
But she shelved that idea for a long, long time. It seemed like a lot of work, and what for anyway? She was retired from teaching, but had no trouble filling her days: reading, artwork, music (she plays cello), and zoom calls to observe a new grandchild in the UK (she hasn’t met in person, yet). She didn’t need an over-sized project.
But early one morning in the second wave of the Great Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020–21, she pulled out the type case. In exasperation over yet another lockdown — with grey February days confining her to a red brick house in Guelph’s Ward neighbourhood — Rose set to work.
She started cutting out cardboard covers for tiny books that would fit into her miniature bookcase, just 3/4″ x 1″ in size. After making a handful of covers, she awoke the next day and sliced up the pages of an old dictionary with her exact-o knife, then sewed them into four neat signatures with dental floss, and finally bound them to the covers using the same method she sometimes used for her full-size gift notebooks.
She’d make a small batch of books from start to finish. Then she’d do it again. And again. Her husband Brad observed her pandemic project and thought, “She’s going mad,” but wisely kept his thoughts to himself.
Each morning after breakfast, Rose would ascend the stairs to her workroom and then apply herself to miniature bookmaking. None of her neighbours knew the industry that was unfolding in secret on Hood Street, a veritable factory of mini-books, a grand venture of Lilliputian proportions.
More than once, Brad thought, “She’s lost it,” or perhaps even, “No, I’ve lost my wife to a ridiculous o________.” But he never uttered the O-word in Rose’s presence.
Finally, over two months after she started, Rose had completed her second-wave Covid project, and Brad shared a photo of it with me. I soon went over to their house to view the objet d’art in person, because I love books and printing too, even if I’m not o________ed by them.
As Rose stood proudly holding her case, I was flabbergasted by her craft and the perseverance that it represented. Neatly lined up inside the type compartments were Rose’s books, each one unique — an astounding 468 mini-books in all!
Together, the colours were dazzling, and the neatness of the whole was very satisfying, a lot more than the sum of its tiny parts. It reminded me of something much larger — those aerial photos you see of ports like Shanghai or Rotterdam, with coloured shipping containers lined up in orderly rows dockside.
Rose lets me remove a single book. Sure enough, inside are pages of minuscule words on very thin paper, definitions from two ancient dictionaries that Rose sacrificed to the cause.
I squint hard to read the type inside: “Manse … Presbyterian … “ I relate! I grew up in manses, because my dad was a Presbyterian (United Church) minister. On the next page: “match-book” / “match-less” / “match-lock”. I seem to have drawn the M-volume.
Rose downplays her accomplishment with a series of self-effacing dismissals:
- “Don’t look too closely at the pages, there’s some slap-dash work in there … “
- “The materials are not archival, they won’t stand up to the centuries … “
- “The signatures are sewn together with dental floss for goodness sake … “
- “The process was a bit factory-like … ”
I studiously avoid Brad’s gaze and make Rose an offer: “I have an empty type case I bought from Dis-A-Ray a decade ago. I was going to start filling it with knick-knacks!
“It’s yours if you want it. You know, there’s a third wave of Covid on the way, and we’re likely headed for another lockdown, perhaps more severe and restrictive this time around … ”