The work of handmind

Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Always Coming Home” is one of my favourite books, one which I take out nearly every year and dip into. It’s not actually a novel, but rather a picture of two post-apocalyptic societies. It contains poetry, short stories, anecdotes about the people and their festivals and practices, and the long story of Stone Telling, whose father was of one of the societies, and whose mother was of the other.

One of the little treasures of this novel is a passage that begins, “Nothing is better than the work of handmind.” The hand slows the mind, whether it is shaping clay or words. When I read this passage I understood it instantly, because I’ve always been someone who wanted to make things. The ideas in my head often run too quickly for me to catch them all and bring them into being. Even in writing, I find that stories disappear before I can write them down. But there are always more.

What I love about as much as I love writing is making books. Every year I make a handbound, limited edition of some of my favourite stories from the previous year, no more than twenty-five copies. I call it “the family book”, and most of them go to family, some to friends.

I like to make a matching edition, but last year I was too short of money to buy the sheets of decorative paper I wanted for the covers, or the reams of matching paper I needed for the pages. So I worked with what I had, mixing and matching papers to produce an edition in which every book was the same in text, but different in colour and texture, both of pages and covers. No two were alike. It made it very difficult to choose which one I wanted to keep!

I also make an archive book, in which I have a printed copy of every story I wrote in the previous year. In the age of computers this sounds like an unnecessary effort, right? Alas, no, and I wish I had always printed out everything I wrote. Years ago I lost fifty folklore pieces to a lost or corrupted disc, and have salvaged a bare handful that I had in printout or on other discs. Now I put my faith in the old-fashioned method; I make one for me and one for my sister so that there’s an off-site archive.

And the truth is, I really, really enjoy making those archive books. I really enjoy doing the family book. I often do a mini-book as well, with pages the size of a quarter-sheet of paper. I love the planning, gluing, sewing, and seeing the stack of finished books. It gives me the same feeling I had as a printmaker, when I could look at a completed edition and say, “I started with a copper plate, ink and paper, and I made this.” I get the same feeling from handspun, handknit socks, and from a polished, completed story. It’s the maker’s best satisfaction.

It’s the work of handmind.

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