The Enemies of Books, by William Blades

Chapter viii

Bookbinders.

A good binding gives pleasure. — Deadly effects of the “plough” as used by binders. — Not confined to bye-gone times. — Instances of injury. — De Rome, a good binder but a great cropper. — Books “hacked.”— Bad lettering — Treasures in book-covers. — Books washed, sized, and mended. —“Cases” often Preferable to rebinding.

IN the first chapter I mentioned bookbinders among the Enemies of Books, and I tremble to think what a stinging retort might be made if some irate bibliopegist were to turn the scales on the printer, and place HIM in the same category. On the sins of printers, and the unnatural neglect which has often shortened the lives of their typographical progeny, it is not for me to dilate. There is an old proverb, “’Tis an ill bird that befouls its own nest”; a curious chapter thereupon, with many modern examples, might nevertheless be written. This I will leave, and will now only place on record some of the cruelties perpetrated upon books by the ignorance or carelessness of binders.

Like men, books have a soul and body. With the soul, or literary portion, we have nothing to do at present; the body, which is the outer frame or covering, and without which the inner would be unusable, is the special work of the binder. He, so to speak, begets it; he determines its form and adornment, he doctors it in disease and decay, and, not unseldom, dissects it after death. Here, too, as through all Nature, we find the good and bad running side by side. What a treat it is to handle a well-bound volume; the leaves lie open fully and freely, as if tempting you to read on, and you handle them without fear of their parting from the back. To look at the “tooling,” too, is a pleasure, for careful thought, combined with artistic skill, is everywhere apparent. You open the cover and find the same loving attention inside that has been given to the outside, all the workmanship being true and thorough. Indeed, so conservative is a good binding, that many a worthless book has had an honoured old age, simply out of respect to its outward aspect; and many a real treasure has come to a degraded end and premature death through the unsightliness of its outward case and the irreparable damage done to it in binding.

The weapon with which the binder deals the most deadly blows to books is the “plough,” the effect of which is to cut away the margins, placing the print in a false position relatively to the back and head, and often denuding the work of portions of the very text. This reduction in size not seldom brings down a handsome folio to the size of quarto, and a quarto to an octavo.

With the old hand plough a binder required more care and caution to produce an even edge throughout than with the new cutting machine. If a careless workman found that he had not ploughed the margin quite square with the text, he would put it in his press and take off “another shaving,” and sometimes even a third.

Dante, in his “Inferno,” deals out to the lost souls various tortures suited with dramatic fitness to the past crimes of the victims, and had I to execute judgment on the criminal binders of certain precious volumes I have seen, where the untouched maiden sheets entrusted to their care have, by barbarous treatment, lost dignity, beauty and value, I would collect the paper shavings so ruthlessly shorn off, and roast the perpetrator of the outrage over their slow combustion. In olden times, before men had learned to value the relics of our printers, there was some excuse for the sins of a binder who erred from ignorance which was general; but in these times, when the historical and antiquarian value of old books is freely acknowledged, no quarter should be granted to a careless culprit.

It may be supposed that, from the spread of information, all real danger from ignorance is past. Not so, good reader; that is a consummation as yet “devoutly to be wished.” Let me relate to you a true bibliographical anecdote: In 1877, a certain lord, who had succeeded to a fine collection of old books, promised to send some of the most valuable (among which were several Caxtons) to the Exhibition at South Kensington. Thinking their outward appearance too shabby, and not knowing the danger of his conduct, he decided to have them rebound in the neighbouring county town. The volumes were soon returned in a resplendent state, and, it is said, quite to the satisfaction of his lordship, whose pleasure, however, was sadly damped when a friend pointed out to him that, although the discoloured edges had all been ploughed off, and the time-stained blanks, with their fifteenth century autographs, had been replaced by nice clean fly-leaves, yet, looking at the result in its lowest aspect only — that of market value — the books had been damaged to at least the amount of £500; and, moreover, that caustic remarks would most certainly follow upon their public exhibition. Those poor injured volumes were never sent.

Some years ago one of the most rare books printed by Machlinia — a thin folio — was discovered bound in sheep by a country bookbinder, and cut down to suit the size of some quarto tracts. But do not let us suppose that country binders are the only culprits. It is not very long since the discovery of a unique Caxton in one of our largest London libraries. It was in boards, as originally issued by the fifteenth-century binder, and a great fuss (very properly) was made over the treasure trove. Of course, cries the reader, it was kept in its original covers, with all the interesting associations of its early state untouched? No such thing! Instead of making a suitable case, in which it could be preserved just as it was, it was placed in the hands of a well-known London binder, with the order, “Whole bind in velvet.” He did his best, and the volume now glows luxuriously in its gilt edges and its inappropriate covering, and, alas! with half-an-inch of its uncut margin taken off all round. How do I know that? because the clever binder, seeing some MS. remarks on one of the margins, turned the leaf down to avoid cutting them off, and that stern witness will always testify, to the observant reader, the original size of the book. This same binder, on another occasion, placed a unique fifteenth century Indulgence in warm water, to separate it from the cover upon which it was pasted, the result being that, when dry, it was so distorted as to be useless. That man soon after passed to another world, where, we may hope, his works have not followed him, and that his merits as a good citizen and an honest man counterbalanced his demerits as a binder.

Other similar instances will occur to the memory of many a reader, and doubtless the same sin will be committed from time to time by certain binders, who seem to have an ingrained antipathy to rough edges and large margins, which of course are, in their view, made by Nature as food for the shaving tub.

De Rome, a celebrated bookbinder of the eighteenth century, who was nicknamed by Dibdin “The Great Cropper,” was, although in private life an estimable man, much addicted to the vice of reducing the margins of all books sent to him to bind. So far did he go, that he even spared not a fine copy of Froissart’s Chronicles, on vellum, in which was the autograph of the well-known book-lover, De Thou, but cropped it most cruelly.

Owners, too, have occasionally diseased minds with regard to margins. A friend writes: “Your amusing anecdotes have brought to my memory several biblioclasts whom I have known. One roughly cut the margins off his books with a knife, hacking away very much like a hedger and ditcher. Large paper volumes were his especial delight, as they gave more paper. The slips thus obtained were used for index-making! Another, with the bump of order unnaturally developed, had his folios and quartos all reduced, in binding, to one size, so that they might look even on his bookshelves.”

This latter was, doubtless, cousin to him who deliberately cut down all his books close to the text, because he had been several times annoyed by readers who made marginal notes.

The indignities, too, suffered by some books in their lettering! Fancy an early black-letter fifteenth-century quarto on Knighthood, labelled “Tracts”; or a translation of Virgil, “Sermons”! The “Histories of Troy,” printed by Caxton, still exists with “Eracles” on the back, as its title, because that name occurs several times in the early chapters, and the binder was too proud to seek advice. The words “Miscellaneous,” or “Old Pieces,” were sometimes used when binders were at a loss for lettering, and many other instances might be mentioned.

The rapid spread of printing throughout Europe in the latter part of the fifteenth century caused a great fall in the value of plain unilluminated MSS., and the immediate consequence of this was the destruction of numerous volumes written upon parchment, which were used by the binders to strengthen the backs of their newly-printed rivals. These slips of vellum or parchment are quite common in old books. Sometimes whole sheets are used as fly-leaves, and often reveal the existence of most valuable works, unknown before — proving, at the same time, the small value formerly attached to them.

Many a bibliographer, while examining old books, has to his great puzzlement come across short slips of parchment, nearly always from some old manuscript, sticking out like “guards” from the midst of the leaves. These suggest, at first, imperfections or damage done to the volume; but if examined closely it will be found that they are always in the middle of a paper section, and the real reason of their existence is just the same as when two leaves of parchment occur here and there in a paper volume, viz.: strength — strength to resist the lug which the strong thread makes against the middle of each section. These slips represent old books destroyed, and like the slips already noticed, should always be carefully examined.

When valuable books have been evil-entreated, when they have become soiled by dirty hands, or spoiled by water stains, or injured by grease spots, nothing is more astonishing to the uninitiated than the transformation they undergo in the hands of a skilful restorer. The covers are first carefully dissected, the eye of the operator keeping a careful outlook for any fragments of old MSS. or early printed books, which may have been used by the original binder. No force should be applied to separate parts which adhere together; a little warm water and care is sure to overcome that difficulty. When all the sections are loose, the separate sheets are placed singly in a bath of cold water, and allowed to remain there until all the dirt has soaked out. If not sufficiently purified, a little hydrochloric or oxalic acid, or caustic potash may be put in the water, according as the stains are from grease or from ink. Here is where an unpractised binder will probably injure a book for life. If the chemicals are too strong, or the sheets remain too long in the bath, or are not thoroughly cleansed from the bleach before they are resized, the certain seeds of decay are planted in the paper, and although for a time the leaves may look bright to the eye, and even crackle under the hand like the soundest paper, yet in the course of a few years the enemy will appear, the fibre will decay, and the existence of the books will terminate in a state of white tinder.

Everything which diminishes the interest of a book is inimical to its preservation, and in fact is its enemy. Therefore, a few words upon the destruction of old bindings.

I remember purchasing many years ago at a suburban book stall, a perfect copy of Moxon’s Mechanic Exercises, now a scarce work. The volumes were uncut, and had the original marble covers. They looked so attractive in their old fashioned dress, that I at once determined to preserve it. My binder soon made for them a neat wooden box in the shape of a book, with morocco back properly lettered, where I trust the originals will be preserved from dust and injury for many a long year.

Old covers, whether boards or paper, should always be retained if in any state approaching decency. A case, which can be embellished to any extent looks every whit as well upon the shelf! and gives even greater protection than binding. It has also this great advantage: it does not deprive your descendants of the opportunity of seeing for themselves exactly in what dress the book buyers of four centuries ago received their volumes.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31