Codex-Bound Books: A Maker’s Grimoire

Yesterday, I went to MakerFaire in New York City.  I felt out of place and rather unskilled compared with all those folks who were making electronics and elaborate recreations of famous buildings with toothpicks, and investigating outer space with weather balloon spacecraft attached to payload capsules with cameras and parachutes and … aiee…  Felt very off-putting.

Then my friend Andrew Carle (Twitter handle @tieandjeans and well worth following) and I met a fellow named Matt Barinholtz, of  Matt has an interesting business model.  He started out with a shop in Maryland, where he instructed kids in making things. They weren’t always intrigued, but he thought that by showing them what they could do, and what they could build, that gradually they would become awakened to the joy of making things.  This has generally been very successful, and the result has been that he’s taking their show on the road. They’ve built a mobile shop of some kind, and they travel around Maryland doing demonstrations and programs throughout the state.  Unlike the SparkTruck, though, which has a national audience, Matt’s operation is mostly confined to Maryland.  Confined? Wrong word. Focused.

I genuinely forget whether Matt said it or I said it or Andrew said it, but I want to attribute it to Matt.  He asked, “The problem with Make Magazine and all the rest of it, is that it’s for people who want to know how it’s done.  But the why is the interesting part.  The why is a lot harder to get across.” This is not an exact quotation, but this was the gist of it.  The Why Make? was huge in his mind.  (And we said this as we were standing behind a fully-functional gypsy wagon that was designed to ride behind a four cylinder car — glued and screwed together, as the explanatory sheets of paper tacked to the outside said, to keep it from falling apart while rattling down the road at full speed.  Horse-drawn wagons rarely have that much fuss.)

On Friday night (to back up for a bit) Andrew C and I were wandering around Manhattan, looking at public spaces, and thinking about what makes public spaces good and what makes them bad.  Armchair architecture is a good thing for laid-back makers like myself to tackle, because it’s a thought experiment — it turns out that a mix of commercial and retail space is good for public spaces; so are fountains and greenery; so is a mixture of pedestrian pathways and seating areas, but not a mingling of the two; and so on.

We were standing in front of the statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center, across from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and Andrew noted how many different things come together there:  a Neo-Gothic cathedral swathed in modern aluminum scaffolding; an early 20th century Art-Deco celebration of the power of Capitalism; a modern sculpture with reference to ancient Greece, with its reminders about moving the world with posture and leverage.  I noted that the old ways are often always with us, in new guises.

We split up for a while, Andrew  and Matt and I, but the two Andrews came back together for a talk that never happened, by Sofy on the intersection of “Magic and Making”. There was a gentleman there, a maker and a professor at the Cooper Union in New York who teaches a class on sound art — not music making, but things that produce sound in a way that is about learning from the sound (like John Cage’s 30 minutes in the anechoic chamber at MIT, learning about the sound of his heart beating and his nervous system electricalizing).  I remarked, among the conversation about the audience for Sophy’s talk, about how medieval grimoires were really about learning how to do things, like make paper and forge knives, and make lion-skin belts out of leather, and so on… and that the learning process that the magician went through, in making his own copy of the book, in learning to make inks and pigments, in sewing his or her own robes… was really (in part — some of my magical colleagues would argue that it was about making contact with the spirits, and the learning process was a by-product) about getting a broad-based Maker-education in the makery of his or her time.

I’m drifting back and forth in time now in my memory palace, thinking about all that I’ve learned this weekend, between Andrew, Matt, @jaymesdec, @amptMN, and others… watching kids building NerdyDerby cars.  Watching a digital CNC carve a wooden statue of Venus from a scan of an ancient Greek original. Watching a multi-ton life-size model of the 1963 game Mousetrap unwind, a giant Rube-Goldberg contraption, to smash the hood of a car… watching butterfly bicycles parade endlessly around the circle where Katy Perry the Unicorn spouted perpetual fire…. watching a Mentos and Coke extravaganza.

Why make? Because it’s fun. And then the question becomes How?

But, I come back to Matt’s question, which is Why Make in the First Place?

And I think about Andrew’s comment, with our backs to the Lego store in Rockefeller Center and our faces to Prometheus bringing down fire from heaven, a warrior not of the straining muscle but of the Arte.  Andrew said something like, we build to get better.

The word I used in the last paragraph, “Arte,” is a kind of fancy and pompous way of saying magic.  And I used it here, in kind of a fancy and pompous way, to suggest that the whole show of MakerFaire, is an attempt to use makery to magic (that is, to change consciousness in accordance with will) people into having the realization that making things is fun.  It’s possible that the goal is to enliven and inspire people into believing that it’s fun to make, and that it will make your life more magical and better if you are a maker.

But to do that, I wonder back to that conversation at Sophy’s talk that didn’t happen.  Before us was a whiteboard and the bulk of the museum; and to our left was a physics mini golf game where all of the challenges are efforts to make rockets (golf balls) fly courses through space to arrive at their destination.  Maybe I’m right. Maybe the purpose of a grimoire was to help a person of the time develop an appreciation of the crafts and skills of his time, and, along the way, discover which craft and which branch of making and creating he or she really most enjoyed.

If that’s the case, then there’s really a need for a new kind of grimoire, isn’t there? One which is focused on exposing students, through short projects that lead into one another, into a multitude of skills and crafts and abilities, one at a time, in a semi logical but not always immediately solvable pattern.

And to that end, I contribute a beginning: a codex-bound book, with covers made of cardboard and bolted edges.  A student learns a little bit about force and pressure, about drilling, about approximate measuring (as well as recognizing the need for precise measurement eventually), about working with paper as a material, about nuts and screwdrivers and bolts and washers and vise-grips (and hammers, if it comes to that).

I’m not building the grimoire, or trying to write it… The best grimoires of the Medieval and Renaissance eras were group projects, anyway — retroactively open-source, by different authors copying different rituals from different books and discarding the tools and patterns they found least useful.  Again, I’m not writing the book.  I’m pointing a direction.

But if you develop a short project for the Maker’s Grimoire, let me know, and I’ll link your exercise to the Maker’s Grimoire.  You’ll note that I made the “What it is” video above, and then I’ve also made this (not very good!) how-to video below:


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