Old Books Stink!

Many of my clients talk about the smell of old books as being one of the aspects that attracts them to collecting. 

In the 18th Century, M. Dudin in The Art of the Bookbinder and Gilder ends his treatise by recommending that the completed binding be perfumed.  “Very few people seek this refinement for their books but there is nothing simpler than perfuming a book.” (86) He explains two methods, one by sponging the pages with perfume, the other leaving the book in a cupboard for a long period of time with an open bottle.  Keep those noses going, fellow conservators, I would love to find an example of this.  

Now Christopher Brosius, and his store CB I Hate Perfume, has bottled the smell.  The scent is named “In The Library”, and here is part of his description.

“I love books, particularly old ones. I cannot pass a second hand bookshop and rarely come away without at least one additional volume. I now have quite a collection!  Whenever I read, the start of the journey is always opening the book and breathing deeply. Don’t you find there are few things more wonderful than the smell of a much-loved book? Newly printed books certainly smell very different from older ones. The ink is so crisp. I’ve also noticed that books from different periods & different countries also have very different smells. And then there are the scents of different bindings: leather is marvelous of course but I find a peculiar pleasure in musty worn clothbound books as well. Perhaps just a hint of mildew!  The main note in this scent was copied from one of my favorite books – I happened to find a signed first edition of this novel a few years ago in London. I was more than a little excited because there were only ever a hundred in the first place.” (From the CB I Hate Perfume Website)

I purchased a tiny, 2ml vial of this scent for about $12.  

I’m not much of a perfume guy– it didn’t smell bad, but it didn’t smell like an old book either.

The Shift From Mechanical to Adhesive and Beyond

19th-c

                                          Clark, Adam.  Christian Theology. New York: T. Mason and G. Lane, 1837.

I always enjoy examining these 19th C. (or early 20th C.) book repairs where the board is sewn to the spine.  This example is fairly crude, but some can actually function fairly well.  This book is in my collection– I will preserve it as evidence of the history of book repair.  We might find this repair laughable, but it is fairly easily reversed, there is no glue to remove and it kept the boards from getting lost.  When the holes in the spine are staggered through a number of signatures, these repairs hold up fairly well, and if the paper drapes well and the spine is fairly flat, as in this example, all of the text is easily readable.  

 

sewn-board

 

sewn-board-2

 

This example is missing the title page and first 14 pages, but I think it is some kind of  Catholic devotional book. It is bound in typical early to mid 19th C. style and is quite small– 84 x 57 x 34 mm.   Of course, I am not advocating this as a type of repair a conservator would do today, but to me it represents a 19th C. common sense approach to the most common failure in book structure– detached boards.  This type of repair, fairly common in the US, might have served as impetus for joint tacketing or a literal “sewn-boards” binding. The upper board and lower board are sewn differently, the lower board like the previous example, but in the case of the upper board, the stitch runs into the edge of the board, which results in a decent opening.  The brown thread which matches the calf covering is doubled like sewing thread is.  Could this this have been done by a woman, and the previous “heavy duty” example done by a man?   

board-edge-drilling 

I have hypothesized elsewhere that there might be some kind of connection between early board attachments such as in the Book or Armagh, Romanesque lacing paths, and board slotting. The spine edge of a book board is a very tempting entry point in establishing mechanical attachment.  The strength, and relative noninvasiveness of board edge attachments make it an appealing treatment option, alleviating  the need for disruptive lifting of covering materials.  I have been experimenting with a new jig, pictured above, which holds a foredom drill at a precise angle, and has a depth stop, to accurately drill with wire gage drill bits, in order to drill a hole exactly the size of the thread used to reattach the board.  

 

                                            Advertisement from  Science and Mechanics, Vol. XVII, No. 6, 1946, p. 38.

By the mid 20th C., detached boards and other types of damage are more commonly fixed by tapes and adhesives, as the advertisement above suggests.   Unfortunately, I think I have seen this used on books. It ends up looking like a thick, completely inflexible amber mass of goop.  I think this glue is the kind I used to use as a kid when assembling plastic or balsa wood models.  The cap of this tube is unusual- it looks like a twisted loop of wire, perhaps used to pierce the top when opening?  Often the spine edge of the detached board is glued to the flyleaf to “fix” a detached board.

By the early 21st C.,in the general public, most ideas of repairing an object mechanically are gone, and most ideas of repairing an object by using adhesives are gone.  In fact, the idea of repair is almost gone.  We simply buy a new one, unless the book has some kind of exceptional value.  

The idea of a world where nothing is worn, nothing is fixed and everything is new frightens me.  How would one conserve an ebook reader? I’m sure books will exist for a very long time, but more as symbolic representations of learning and knowledge, not primarily as a source for  accessing a text.  This is why these primitive, vernacular repairs are so important for understanding a previous culture’s relationship to the books they used, treasured, repaired and read.

 

Sony and Stony

 

sony-and-stoney1

I am struck by how closely the dimensions of  the 7th century Stonyhurst Gospel (now renamed as St. Cuthbert’s Gospel of St. John) match the screen size of the Sony Portable Reader System PRS-505.  On the left is a model of the Gospel, which is described in the literature as being 134-138mm high, and 90-95mm wide (1:1.49).  The screen of the Sony Reader is 124mm high and 92mm wide (1:1.35).   Coincidence? Perhaps. But might their dimensions relate to our hand size or comfortable handheld viewing range?  These books are separated by 13 centuries!

I played with the Sony last weekend at the Small Press Fair in NYC. I was impressed by the resolution of the eink at any viewing angle, but page turns were agonizingly slow, and accompanied by an epeliptic inducing flash of background reversal– the text would go white, and the “page” black for a split second.  I also tried out a prototype of the next version, which has a touch screen interface, but doubt this would be a great advantage when reading.There is a promotion on now at Sony—  enter promo code:  10sonyclassic    You can get 10 free ebooks to read on your computer or ebook reader  from the “classics” collection– think 19th C. standard DWM’s.  

I think the Stonyhurst needs a tagline too.  How about “The Stonyhurst: Carry the Gospel of St. John in one hand.”