“Are your hands clean?” When I was young we had a giant dictionary, proudly displayed on its own wooden stand in the living room. I was encouraged to look up words and to browse, but invariably the question came first, “Are your hands clean?” Like most children, a respect for the physical condition of books was instilled early in my formative years.
Because I’m a book artist and instructor, I am often asked for my opinion on books; their storage and care (depends), whether or not it’s OK to write in the margins (depends), how I feel about artist books versus fine bindings (completely different beasts), whether or not to tear paperbacks up and make art (you bet), whether books should be “restored (not if they are precious),” etc. As a student of historical bindings, my feelings have evolved.
In the Middle Ages parchment and inks were handmade. It might take 100 calf skins and a year of labor to copy out and bind a vellum book, not to mention the time and effort to paint miniatures. One does not write in these books and one must schedule an appointment and wear gloves to even touch them. There, rule one. Done. Easy.
Collectors often purchase historically significant books only to take them apart and sell the leaves separately. The book may be worth quite a bit more sold as individual leaves than as an intact structure. A student of mine recently went to see one of Leonardo’s scientific notebooks, the Codex Leicester. It was purchased in 1994 by Bill Gates for $30,802,500, and then he had it disassembled for display.
Disbinding a book, no matter how carefully it is done, erases part of its history. When books are preserved at a university or a museum where these types of concerns are paramount, the process is meticulously recorded, the book is photographed and all pieces, no matter how small, are carefully stored. Every effort is made to preserve the provenance of the book. Why? Can’t scholars just photograph it, write down all the details and then move on? Why keep all the dusty fragments and bits of thread?
Consider technology. Until recently we could see that sometimes ink had been scraped off a manuscript and then new text written over it – an interesting curiosity called a palimpsest – but we couldn’t read the underlying text. With x-rays scholars can actually read the original words underneath. Now they can study texts that someone deemed unworthy, outdated or incendiary enough to expurgate. We can’t destroy information that someone in the future might be able to see or interpret differently than we do.
On the other end of the spectrum is today’s high speed, machine-made, ten thousand-copy run world of printed books.
If I’m reading a mass-produced book I’ll write in the margins with no qualms. In fact, I can hardly read without a pen or pencil in my hand. In school I got into the habit of summarizing each paragraph of a book with a word or four in the margin. It helped me absorb what I read and it also gave me a quick reference if I wanted to look up something later, but it did nothing for the book.
Sidelong glances from other students and the fact that I couldn’t sell the books back to the school made me analyze my behavior, but I persisted. When I read more recently that monks often wrote or doodled in the margins of their manuscripts I felt completely vindicated. Their marginalia became part of the history of the book.
My current personal rule is that if a book is precious in any way, even to a minority of one; through history, rarity, sentiment or for any other reason, it will be treated with due respect and dignity. If, on the other hand, it’s one of 40,000 copies made by a machine in 1983, it will not be venerated for simply being a book.