Saturday, 1 October 2011

Books - What's the Point?

My brain has a lot of time to think this morning, because I am folding and pricking and pressing a batch of 25 new books. Once you've got that set up your mind has a lot of time to wander. And of course I am thinking about books. It's what I do.

Lately I've been attending classes on How To Start A Small Business, and of course they want to know what I think is worthwhile about bookbinding. I can see they don't think anything is, and it's my job to convince them otherwise. So I've been thinking about my relationship with books a lot, and so my next couple of posts are going to be about value.

Bookbinding does a couple of things - it preserves and repairs books, and keeps them free from harm for a longer time. Fine binding also turns the book into a luxury object - something most people will make an effort to preserve.

For me, books are not only the words on the page. Old books are little pieces of history. They are stories that are not told elsewhere - the book itself is the story.

I just reached out a plucked a piece of the early 18th century off my bookshelf.

It is a small volume - about 4" x 6" - bound in sprinkled calf, and rebacked but I'm not sure when. Whoever did the reback tried to mimic the original style but couldn't resist adding double gold lines that probably wouldn't have decorated the original boards. Those lines are sort of worn off but that could easily be faked and I can see the rebacking binder made an effort to make the lines and the new spine look early, but the details aren't quite right.

Inside, I see the pastedowns are original. If the reback had been an early one they would have cut the flyleaf back to a stub and folded it over onto the inside board, which is a kind of mutilation that is frowned upon nowadays. Whoever did the reback added a separate strip of paper, toned to go with the original. So they're not hiding the reback but they're trying to make it look natural, which means the reback was, again, later rather than earlier. See? I've just looked at the thing and already it has a story.

Now, the book itself. The title on the spine is "Mottoes Etc." because back in those days the label wasn't the Official Real Title of the book, but just enough words for the owner to differentiate it from the other books he owned. The actual title: "The Mottoes of the Spectators, Tatlers, and Guardians, Translated into English" is given on the title page, along with one of my favourite parts of any old book - the printer's note:

For "Mottoes Etc." was printed in London for Richard Wellington, at the Dolphin and Crown without Temple-Bar. And lastly, it was printed in M.DCC.XXXVII. That is 1737, and I am interested to note that they divided up the date into millennium, hundred-years, and less-than-a-hundred-years using periods. I file that information away in my trivia collection, and go back to contemplating Richard Wellington and whether he had a good time at the Dolphin and Crown without Temple-Bar (early typography is fun, too) and wondering whether the D&C was a pub. It sure sounds like a pub, and I often do business out of the local coffee-shop, why shouldn't Richard Wellington have worked out of a pub? Or maybe it's just that the Dolphin and the Crown were the signs he used on his own storefront. Or maybe the D&C was also a rooming house and that's where he lived.

Then I turn to the preface, which kindly tells me why the book was written, and I find another story. "Many of my Fair [ie, female] Readers, as well as very gay and well-received Persons of the other Sex, are extremely perplex'd at the Latin Sentences at the Head of my Speculations; I do not know whether I ought not to indulge them with Translations of each of them."

So here's another little footnote to history. I knew the newspapers in the title - The Guardian, the Tatler, and the Spectator - were re-published in several editions and no doubt you can find them on the Internet - but how many have heard this story? That there were so many people asking what the Latin phrases in those newspapers meant that they wound up being published in their own book? We don't often see Latin in books any more, but when we do we assume that way back when books were printed in Latin people were so well-educated they could read those books. Not women, of course, but apparently a lot of "well-received" men, too, couldn't figure them out - or at least not well enough to be sure of the meaning. Interesting social history side note.

Whenever I pick up my little book I can find out something. Turning randomly, I can read Latin (because who can ever get enough Latin, right?) like "Quid de quoque viro, & cui dicas, saepe caveto" which I am told means "Take heed of whom you speak, and what it is, Take heed to whom" Very true and useful, I'm sure, but more just fun for me to read.

Plus, in 18th-century style, this book is stiff with ornaments. Those are decorative stamps used in printing to fill in odd pages ends or mark the beginning or ends of chapters or divisions. A story and Latin and a lot of pictures! All in one little volume.

Of course I love it. Of course I want to take care of it. I am glad somebody thought enough of this book to save it from the ravages of time. I think a lot of it myself. And that is why bookbinding will continue.

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