‘Making a book is an extraordinary thing’: Pip Williams on the invisible history of female bookbinders

A few years ago in the museum of the Oxford University Press, author Pip Williams was shown a hypnotic short film made nearly a century earlier which crammed the entire production of an OUP book into 18 minutes. The 1925 film shows a workplace divided by gender. While men were responsible for setting the type, manning the presses and affixing the covers, the labour of women – who comprised around a ninth of the Press’s workforce – was often hidden.

“It’s a black-and-white, silent film, but they’re moving,” Williams explains. She was struck by footage of a woman gathering up long sheets of pages, sometimes 16 pages per side, so they could be folded then bound together. “She sort of moved along the gathering bench like she’s dancing. She’s done it 1,000, 2,000 times, and she had this rhythm which was really graceful.

“The women did the things that are invisible. It’s beautiful, it’s what holds the book together – a well-bound book depends so much on what the women have done.”

The 53-year-old author was curious: as the woman onscreen swept the pages into her arms, did she ever stop to read them? It was an intriguing premise, but for the moment Williams had another book to finish – her first novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and the reason she was in Oxford to begin with.

That novel was eventually published in March 2020, just days after the declaration of a global pandemic. While some authors opted to delay their releases as lockdowns loomed, Williams pushed through: her book tour was cancelled, but she pivoted to a growing world of online talks, spreading the word as readers yearned for literary escapism. (“That timing was pretty good – about a month later, no one wanted to Zoom,” she says.)

Williams with Bilbo at home.
‘Clearly the home of a bibliophile’ … Williams with Bilbo. Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian

While The Dictionary of Lost Words kept readers occupied (to date it has sold more than 500,000 copies globally, with stage and television adaptations on the way), Williams returned to those women in the bindery. But even after a follow-up research trip in 2022, their stories eluded her.

“There is so much interesting stuff, hands-on, tangible stuff that you find in archives – bits of paper that thrill you,” Williams says at her home in the Adelaide Hills, sitting under an enormous bookshelf filled with well-thumbed paperbacks, beautiful old editions and copies of her first book translated into multiple languages. As she speaks, an old whippet named Bilbo potters nearby; this is clearly the home of a bibliophile.

“Then you go deeper into the archives to look for evidence that’s going to back up that thrilling thing you found … and when I did that, I could find nothing.”

Just as her first novel explored the words left out of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Bookbinder of Jericho became another act of reading between the “blank spaces” of the archive. From American scholar Saidiya Hartman to the work of Williams’s neighbour, the author Hannah Kent, it’s a challenge that faces both historians and authors trying to wring signs of life from an archive and canon with big blind spots around class, gender, race and sexuality.

Hartman – whose book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments explored the lives of young and poor Black women in early 20th century America – calls her process of research and imagination “critical fabulation”. But for Williams, a social scientist by training, a 19th century Emily Dickinson poem serves as her lodestar: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

“I think that’s the role of fiction too – unfortunately some of this stuff doesn’t exist, some of this history has been lost because the systems that collected history have been so biased,” she says. “I think fiction is a great way to fill in the gaps of history.”

In The Bookbinder of Jericho, those gaps are filled by Peggy, a young woman who works in the bindery alongside her twin sister Maude. Folding, sorting and sewing by day, Peggy also reads whatever crosses her workstation and fills their home with pocketed offcuts – a makeshift library of seconds and printing errors that would otherwise be discarded.

Teasing out Dictionary’s themes of gender and class, Peggy yearns to cross the divide between “town” and “gown”, which separates the working-class residents of Jericho – a suburb where OUP is a major employer – and academic Oxford one street over. But a young working woman with all the academy’s words at her fingertips still faces enormous barriers – even before the invasion of Belgium, outbreak of the second world war and the Spanish flu reshape her world.

Pip Williams at the author’s home in Blakiston, South Australia. March 7, 2023
‘I adore books, I adore everything about them’ … Pip Williams. Photograph: Sia Duff/The Guardian

Like Williams’s first novel, Peggy’s story balances a reverence for books as objects of craft and knowledge, while also recognising the limitations sewn into their spines. “As you can see, I adore books, I adore everything about them,” she says, looking up at that big shelf. “And I adore their flaws as well; in a way books, with all books, it’s the reading between the lines that tells you about the time and place and person around the book.

“Nothing is objective, nothing is without flaw or opinion. They’re incredibly human. And what I hadn’t realised until I’d written The Bookbinder of Jericho, was the amount of craft and skill that goes into the book that I hold in my hand.

“The book itself wouldn’t be in my hand unless there were these skilled people behind it; the actual making of a book is an extraordinary thing. And every single book on this shelf has had humans involved that I had never given a second thought to. This book, really, is me giving that second thought.”

The Guardian