The Bone Knife

Over on her blog, Catherynne M. Valente posted a request, a sort of challenge to her readers.

It was inspired by Caitlin R. Kiernan’s asking the same question first: If you were to make of me— of my actual, physical body —a work of art, what would it be?… Absolutely no answer can be too outlandish, too grim, too disturbing, too violent, too erotic, too personal, too whatever. Get your hands dirty. And mine, as well. Feel free to employ any imaginable medium, even fictional ones. No minimum or maximum word limit; write as much or as little as you wish.

Catherynne asked that we post comments on her blog, following the same request. But when I’d finished, LiveJournal rejected it as being over the character limit!

I could only edit it down so far…and I was still over limit.

So, I’m placing it here. This is my reply to Catherynne M. Valente’s request.  This is what emerged from that request:


Catherynne —

Many people will submit this answer, I’m sure. It’s so very obvious.

But I actually am an amateur bookbinder.  So I do know what I’m talking about, here.

For the Book of You, I’d begin by tanning some of your skin for the cover.

The rest, I’d convert into vellum. It’s a long process, but because of the repeated stretchings, a lot of vellum can be got from a single skin.

The process takes two weeks; plenty of time to complete the other preparations.

I’d twist your hair into thread for sewing the sections together. Your hair is very long– that’s good. I have to use many strands for each thread, so they’ll be strong. And I’ll have enough left over to weave a small amount of cloth.

I’d scrape and clean your ligaments and tendons. Some of them, I’d pare down, soak, and stretch into catgut. (Aha, a pun. Cat-gut. Amusing.)

The rest I would flatten and dry, and cut into sections, about ten inches long. I’d interlace them the way children at camp interlace clean popsicle sticks into stiff squares. This, because your body has no cardboard, and we need boards for the cover.

The marrow of your bones, combined with ground bone-dust would become glue.

When the vellum is ready, I’ll trim it, fold it. Two big sheets together, folded in the middle, resulting in a four-page section. Sixteen such sections in all.

We bookbinders call these sections “signatures.” I find that interesting. Especially poignant here, don’t you think? A mark of you, for remembrance.

I need a needle — a shard of bone, from your ulna. I’ll sand it down to a point, carve out a slim eye.

Oh, and a bone knife. Every bookbinder has a bone knife. It’s an essential tool of the trade. We use it to flatten the signature’s folds as tight and close as possible, and to smooth down glued paper.

Bone is used for this, traditionally. I’ve heard of people using ivory, but I think that’s just an affectation. Bone is always best.

Your sternum, yes. Ground down. Smooth as silk. Fitting perfectly in my hand.

Oh, don’t worry, bone knives are blunt. They have no stabbing point, no cutting edge.  This is not a weapon.

I’ll sew the signatures to each other, using hair-thread and catgut, onto binding tapes —

Binding tapes? Wait — oh, yes. More flattened ligament, of course. That should do.

There: that’s the finished book-block, the pages bound to each other but not yet mated to their cover. But it has to be compressed for a while, to square it and tighten it. Fortunately, I own a very good book-press.

While waiting, I’ll make the cover.

Lay out the leather. Arrange the boards, there and there. Measure, just to be sure. Mark, and cut the leather. Set the boards aside…

Spread the glue — it’s a bit gritty. I should have made it better, been more patient.

Then, replace the boards, press them down, fold over the edges of the leather. This leather is especially nice, I must say.

Let it all dry…


Take the book-block out of the press, and set it down on the open cover. Those tapes, made of ligament — glue them to the inside of the the cover, front and back. They serve to hold the cover to the book-block.

But — endpapers! I didn’t think of endpapers! I need them, or readers will open your book to see bare glued ligament on the inside of the cover, and the raw edge of the book-block against the spine!

This is ugly! No, no, we can’t have ugly!

Think. Think.

Right. I can take the first and last pages of the book-block, spread them with glue, and close the cover. Carefully.

Then open the book, and there are your endpapers.

They are the same as the paper in the signatures, but… yes, this sort of thing is done sometimes. It’s not wrong.

It’s very good vellum. I do wish the endpapers could be different, could contrast somehow.   There should be patterns, color;  there should be gold.  But really, you have so little gold in you, if gathered together, it would not yield enough even to stamp a volume number on the spine.

Think of the gold as distributed everywhere, infinitesimal and invisible. That’s best.

Last touches: A ribbon for a book-mark, made from your midnight-dark cloth of hair. A latch and closure; special books always have them.   I’ll use the distal phalanx of your right index finger and right thumb, the fingers that you used to hold a pen —

Wait, were you left-handed? I don’t know! There’s no way to find out now.

I can’t get this wrong!  Think.

I’ll have to use the distal phalanxes from both right and left indexes and thumbs. That’s… less than optimal, but it covers what’s needed.


Blood’s not the best ink. It’s clotty and slippery. But for symbolism’s sake, I can’t pass it up. I’ll add ground bone to give it some bite. And I must add lampblack to give it a cleaner color.

I’ll get the lampblack by burning your fingernails and catching the smoke on a mirror (the mirror is not made of you; I’m sorry). I’ll scrape the black ash from the mirror, and add it to the blood.

An inkwell, from one of your vertebrae. A pen, carved so carefully from the smallest of your floating ribs.

Open the book and —

What shall I write? What shall I write?

Oh, I know…


Don’t worry. It’s merely the title page, and a short introduction: Catherynne M. Valente, as I Knew Her.

All done.

And now:

The Boston Public Library, I think.

Fiction, or Mythology? Biography?


Rare books — no. No one should have to ask to read you. No one should need to fill out a form, and wait, foot-tapping. No one should read you while wearing perfect white cotton gloves.

Philosophy? Erotica?

Where will you be found by the most people? By the ones who weren’t looking for you — because they are the ones who need you most.

Aha. Popular fiction. Best-sellers.

No one’s watching… quickly now. Open the daypack, take out the book —

Oh, but it’s hard to let this jewel of a book leave my hands.

But no. This is the point.

There. Eye-level, just past halfway along the row.

I wonder who will find you…

Someone’s coming! Be casual, nonchalant, stroll away. Away down the row.

Down the stairs

Through the security point. No, sir, I have nothing in my daypack, as you can see.

Across the marble floor, toward the bright doors.

Out into the winter light of Boylston Street. It’s so cold.

And now, I can never go there again.

I won’t be able to bear seeing the Book of You gone. Nor bear seeing it still there, unfound by those who need it.

Either sight would be too much.

So, I can never go in there again. And now, I have nothing.

No, wait —

The bone knife. It’s in my pocket.


I will use it forever.

Bone Folding Knife