Refusing to be cowed by the expectations of her gender and class, a young woman hungry for knowledge finds her own way.
Good to know
Book about books
It is 1914, and as the war draws the young men of Britain away to fight, women must keep the nation running. Two of those women are Peggy and Maude, twin sisters who live on a narrowboat in Oxford and work in the bindery at the university press.
Ambitious, intelligent Peggy has been told for most of her life that her job is to bind the books, not read them—but as she folds and gathers pages, her mind wanders to the opposite side of Walton Street, where the female students of Oxford’s Somerville College have a whole library at their fingertips. Maude, meanwhile, wants nothing more than what she has: to spend her days folding in the company of the other bindery girls. She is extraordinary but vulnerable, and Peggy feels compelled to watch over her.
Then refugees arrive from the war-torn cities of Belgium, sending ripples through the Oxford community and the sisters’ lives. Peggy begins to see the possibility of another future where she can educate herself and use her intellect, not just her hands. But as war and illness reshape her world, her love for a Belgian soldier—and the responsibility that comes with it—threaten to hold her back.
Scraps. That’s all I got. Fragments that made no sense without the words before or the words after.
We were folding The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and I’d scanned the first page of the editor’s preface a hundred times. The last line on the page rang in my mind, incomplete and teasing. I have only ventured to deviate where it seemed to me that …
Ventured to deviate. My eye caught the phrase each time I folded a section.
Where it seemed to me that …
That what? I thought. Then I’d start on another sheet.
First fold: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Second fold: Edited by WJ Craig. Third fold: ventured to bloody deviate.
My hand hovered as I read that last line and tried to guess at the rest.
WJ Craig changed Shakespeare, I thought. Where it seemed to him that …
I grew desperate to know.
I glanced around the bindery, along the folding bench piled with quires of sheets and folded sections. I looked at Maude.
She couldn’t care less about the words on the page. I could hear her humming a little tune, each fold marking time like the second hand of a clock. Folding was her favourite job, and she could fold better than anyone, but that didn’t stop mistakes. Folding tangents, Ma used to call them. Folds of her own design and purpose. From the corner of my eye, I’d sense a change in rhythm. It was easy enough to reach over, stay her hand. She understood. She wasn’t simple, despite what people thought. And if I missed the signs? Well, a section ruined. It could happen to any of us with the slip of a bonefolder. But we’d notice. We’d put the damaged section aside. My sister never did. And so I had to.
Why I love it
Patti Callahan Henry
Author, The Secret Book of Flora Lea
I am enchanted with books about books, stories about the power of story, and tales that reveal the lost narratives of women in places we don’t expect. Pip Williams seems to understand these loves of mine. In her engaging new novel The Bookbinder, she introduces us to Peggy and her vulnerable twin sister Maude, who live on a narrowboat across from Port Meadow in Oxford. Peggy’s wise intellect and captivating prose carry us into the fascinating bookbinding world of The Press during a war that changes a country and its people.
For Peggy, there is a particular agony in touching the typed pages that she folds and sews while being forbidden to indulge in the fullness of the text. Damaged books taken from the bindery to fill their boat, The Calliope, form the only library Peggy may ever enter. Bound by circumstance and duty, a life of literature and education like the one she sees in the Somerville students across the plaza from The Press is meant for other women, but not for her. But when the war arrives in Oxford, men from The Press are sent away, unlikely friendships form, and life unravels as Peggy finally faces her hidden desires.
I was absolutely enthralled by the lush world of 1900s Oxford and the ancient art of bookbinding. With unforgettable characters and a rich landscape, The Bookbinder is an immersive read I didn’t put down until I let out a long sigh on the last page.
Member ratings (977)
Love this book!! Engrossing narrative where multiple themes- WWI, PTSD, Spanish Flu, loss, sacrifice, friendship- are expertly crafted/ woven together. Makes me want to read PW’s other novel 5⭐️
I’m so happy that I purchased this book! If you love books (obviously, you’re here), you must read this WWI era novel about the women bookbinders at Oxford University Press. Such a touching read!
Saint Paul, MN
I loved this very strong story about the roles of women during the turbulent time of WWI, and its aftermath, and the differing roles between the upper and lower classes at Oxford University.
A beautifully written historical fiction, weaving in the nuances of war, the intricacies of bookbinding, the trials of love, and women's rights.
Lovely story, delightful characters and fantastic setting. Learning about the early 20th c. printing process was a fascinating bonus.