Step one when creating a fine bookbinding: read the book. At least, says British master bookbinder Dominic Riley, in Auckland last week for the first Association of Book Crafts (ABC) conference, that's what you're supposed to do. Some don't. Riley mostly does, although he didn't feel the need to open The Somme - An Eyewitness History; judging the book by its title, he covered it with stylised trenches, helmets and barbed wire.

However, he did spend time researching World War I barbed wire accurately depicting the book's subject required knowing more than the book itself expressed. His research paid off: the design won the 2007 Mansfield Medal for Best Book in Britain's annual Designer Bookbinders Society competition. (The medal, by the way, has nothing to do with Our Katherine but was named after Our Edgar, NZ-British sculptor Edgar Mansfield who is credited with reviving bookbinding in Britain in the mid-20th century.)

After chatting with Riley, it seems to me that fine bookbinding is a bit like designing theatre sets. You read words, usually a narrative, and you translate the spirit of that story into a static, possibly abstract, visual form. As if such distillation weren't hard enough, both bookbinding and set design have to meld with other elements: with the illustrations, font and printing (for bookbinding), or direction, lighting and costumes (for set design). Both crafts are practised in real materials; not pixels but wood, leather, fabric and metal.

Of course, these conceptual and practical challenges are part of the fun. Riley describes bookbinding as combining a love of literature, art and practical craft, and it's addictive enough that several Australians flew across the ditch to attend his Auckland masterclasses in leather wrangling.

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Once a year, the once-secretive craft also goes showbiz: every Man Booker finalist is presented with a hand-bound copy of their short-listed work at the televised black-tie award dinner. Afterwards, says Riley in horror, the books are passed around and "everybody puts their greasy fingers all over them"!

Eleanor Catton's copy of The Luminaries, bound by Rachel Ward-Sale, is on display at Auckland's central public library, as part of For the love of books, a beautiful exhibition of small press and art books which runs until February 22. (However, for aficionados, Objectspace's incredible Janus Press exhibition closes in Ponsonby today.)

The Luminaries literally shines. In gold-sprinkled, irregular orbit on its dark blue goatskin cover are 13 onlaid golden leather squares, representing the lost gold of the story, and presumably the 12 signs of the zodiac and the sun (the moon seems to be missing).

Riley has bound two Man Booker tomes himself, including 2010 winner The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. Riley received a "super letter" of thanks from Jacobson, who wrote prettily that Riley's cover captured the mood and ideas of the book so well that he (Jacobson) was worried no one would need to actually read the book. Distillation accomplished.