Enemies of Books by William Blades, Randolph G. Adams, Bagher Bachchha (Editor)

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Enemies of Books by William Blades, Randolph G. Adams, Bagher Bachchha (Editor)

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A new edition of a title first published in 1888, hailed as ‘the wittiest commentary on book-collecting and the care of books ever written'.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 180 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Tiger of the Stripe
ISBN: 978-1904799368

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William Blades, a Victorian printer and bibliographer, is best remembered as the biographer of William Caxton. He also wrote this very concise work on the threats to books from such enemies as fire, water, gas and heat, dust and neglect, and ignorance and bigotry. In the process he slips in several interesting historical facts. The chapter on fire notes the vast destruction of books in the Great Fire of London in 1666, as well as in the Gordon Riots just over a century later, and closer to his own time, the destruction of a priceless law library at Strasbourg, ravaged by the shells of the German army during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

Regarding ignorance and bigotry, he has one or two strange tales to tell. In 1854 the Patent Office began to publish a very important series of blue books, but when it moved offices in 1879 sold them to the paper mills as waste paper – thus necessitating having to reprint many of them again at a later date.

Perhaps the most astonishing chapter is that on the activities of bookworm – that's the insect, not the addict such as you or I, dear reader. Blades was a kindly soul, for he tells us in priceless detail about a tiny worm he was sent by a bookbinder from Northampton. He kept it (not the bookbinder) in a box in warmth and quiet, to mention nothing of a few fragments of paper from a volume printed by Caxton and a leaf of a 17th century book (how could he – no, I'm not making this up). The worm only lived another three weeks, but not before being verified by an official from the entomology department of the British Museum!

Even bookbinders and collectors as well as servants and children are given a sharp ticking off in this book. Finally, just to bring it into the 20th century (Blades died in 1890) is an article from a 1937 issue of Library Quarterly. Librarians, we learn, are just as guilty as anybody else, mutilating precious volumes with embossing or rubber stamps, writing class marks with white ink on the backs of the bindings, and generally treating them so they will be no use to anybody else. As a library assistant myself for more years than I care to remember, I can see both opposing points of view, while admitting I have rescued more than a few wonderful (and sometimes very old) tomes which might otherwise have ended up in the corporation recycling centre – with my superiors' full blessing, should their successors be reading this.

There's also an introduction (signed by a row of irreproducible hieroglyphics) commenting on 21st century enemies, like the very mixed blessing of online bookselling, and the destruction of public transport as a safe haven for quiet readers. MP3 players and mobile phones are largely responsible for the latter. And Ken Livingstone, it was your fault for encouraging them.

All in all, much of what the author wrote well over a century ago still holds good. I suspect that some of it was written somewhat tongue-in-cheek, though much was in deadly earnest. At the very least, it is an entertaining read to see how the custodians of our heritage safeguarded books and other treasures in their day. Obviously it's very much a document of its time, rather than an indispensable handbook of dos and don'ts. To those of us used to making do with dog-eared, spine-creased paperbacks much of the time, reading about beautifully-produced bindings containing pages which were gilt at the top as a safeguard against dust takes us into another world.

Our thanks to Tiger of the Stripe for sending a review copy to Bookbag.

For further (and more recent) musings on the subject of books we can recommend Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman.

Buy Enemies of Books by William Blades, Randolph G. Adams, Bagher Bachchha (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Enemies of Books by William Blades, Randolph G. Adams, Bagher Bachchha (Editor) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Enemies of Books by William Blades, Randolph G. Adams, Bagher Bachchha (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Enemies of Books by William Blades, Randolph G. Adams, Bagher Bachchha (Editor) at Amazon.com.

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